Who's the White Barack Obama?

Countless Americans were horrified recently when Geraldine Ferraro said of Barack Obama, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” Among the horrified were untold thousands of English teachers who noted that, since the verb was in the subjunctive mood, Ferraro should have said, “If Obama were a white man.” Since then, it has also been suggested that Ferraro’s remark wasn’t merely ungrammatical, it was racist. Ferraro’s statement gave rise to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann’s first-ever “Special Comment” to be directed at a Democrat. During his 10-minute tirade, Olbermann condemned Ferraro as a racist for making the at least defensible suggestion that Obama’s rather sudden, Elvis-like wave of popularity might have some racial component.

I’ll leave to others the question of whether or not a lifelong, card-carrying liberal Democratic icon like Geraldine Ferraro is a racist. But if we can at least agree that racist statements are also false statements, perhaps a better question would be: Was her statement — that Obama would not be within striking distance of the Democratic nomination for President of the United States if he were white — true or false?

Such hypothetical questions can never be answered definitively, but a good follow-up question here might be: Has a white male with a résumé like Obama’s ever gotten this close to being nominated for President by a major party?

As someone who has clearly (and adorably!) dabbled in U.S. history, Keith Olbermann made a show of addressing this, suggesting that Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon and even FDR were all as under-qualified as Barack Obama appears to be today. Really, Keith? Well, that should be easy to check:

— Before being nominated for President, Theodore Roosevelt was a celebrated war hero, assistant secretary of the Navy, the governor of New York and the Vice President of the United States.

— Before his nomination, Calvin Coolidge served two terms in both the U.S. House and Senate, was the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, the governor of Massachusetts, settled the 1919 police strike in Boston, was a city mayor and became the first Vice President of the United States to attend Cabinet meetings.

— Before he was nominated, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the bar without finishing law school, was a state senator in New York who took on Tammany Hall, was assistant secretary of the Navy and was the governor of New York.

— Before his nomination, Woodrow Wilson was a noted scholar and author on governmental issues, the president of Princeton University and the governor of New Jersey.

— Before his first nomination, in 1960 Richard Nixon was a naval officer who served in the Pacific during World War II, was a two-term Vice President, a two-term U.S. representative, was on the House Committee on Un-American Activities (where he helped expose Alger Hiss) and served two years in the U.S. Senate.

Now let’s consider Barack Obama’s accomplishments: Born in Hawaii, “Barry” Obama was first exposed to the nuances of international relations, by his own account, while living in Indonesia between the ages of six and 10. After high school, he earned a degree from Columbia University in political science with a specialization in international relations — a detail he seriously cites as one of his qualifications to conduct foreign policy as President. After college, Obama moved to Chicago and worked as a community organizer. Then, in 1988, he enrolled in Harvard Law School.

OK, now we’re getting somewhere. You have to be pretty special to get into Harvard Law, right? Other notable Harvard Law School grads include Alberto Gonzalez, Janet Reno, Michael Dukakis, Ralph Nader and Comedy Central’s Greg Giraldo. But, some of you are thinking, “He wasn’t just a Harvard law student, Barack Obama was also a member of the university’s law review, one of the most prestigious in America.” Past members of the Harvard Law Review include Susan Estrich, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Dean Acheson, Alger Hiss and, more recently, former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer. Now, that’s what I call presidential timber.

But wait, there’s more. Barack Obama (I think he was going by Barack at this point) wasn’t just a member of the law review — in 1989 he made history by being elected the very first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review! That’s right, 1989 — by sheer coincidence, the same year the Harvard campus was ablaze with student protests demanding more diversity, including sit-ins at the law library and outside the dean’s office where angry students frantically waved “Diversity Now!” and “Homogeneity Feeds Hatred!” signs. Yes, 1989 — the year black professor Derek Bell resigned in protest over Harvard’s lack of diversity. And yet, with all that going on, Barack Obama still managed to get himself elected president of the Harvard Law Review. Wow, you talk about your amazing coincidences. I think the word here is “serendipity.”

After law school, Obama returned to Chicago to practice law before being elected to the Illinois state senate in 1996. There he sponsored important laws like the one requiring policemen to record the race of every driver they stopped. Then, in 2004, Obama, virtually unknown outside of Chicago, was selected to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. This distinct honor, of course, had nothing to do with his race. No, the Democrats had obviously just selected a random, anonymous figure (who just happened to be bi-racial) to deliver the most important speech of a convention they hoped would be the beginning of the end of President George W. Bush. And let’s be fair: Obama’s speech went very well, especially that line about people in the Red States having gay friends — who knew?

Because of this performance, Obama was now a serious candidate for the U.S. Senate, and he won the Democratic nomination on the strength of his obvious charisma — plus, perhaps, the fact that his strongest Democratic rival (millionaire Blair Hull) had been accused of domestic abuse. But things looked bleak for Obama in the general election –that is until Republican rival Jack Ryan withdrew after being accused by his wife, luscious “Star Trek: The Next Generation” star Jeri Ryan, of trying to take her to sex clubs. You heard me right: Barack Obama’s path to the U.S. Senate was likely paved, in no small part, by angry “Star Trek” fans. After brushing aside last-minute GOP replacement candidate Alan Keyes in November, Barack Obama became just the third black person elected to the U. S. Senate since Reconstruction.

Poor Training Ground

Most voters agree that the Senate makes a poor training ground for the presidency, which is why former governors are more likely to be elected. Still, a really imposing legislative record might make even a young senator seem more presidential. So what are the highlights of Sen. Obama’s legislative efforts to date (as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews recently asked Texas state senator and Obama supporter Kirk Watson, only to be rewarded with a blank stare)? In his three-plus years in the Senate, Obama has sponsored or co-sponsored legislation dealing with lobbying, electoral fraud, climate change, nuclear terrorism, conventional weapons proliferation and promoting public accountability in the use of federal funds. Even more impressively, at least to me, Obama has supposedly managed to quit smoking. No wonder Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in the world in 2005 — even before his vast legislative exploits had begun — and then again in 2007. But I’m sure that distinction also had nothing to do with his race. Lots of obscure, first-year white male senators are said to be among the most powerful people on planet Earth just hours after they’ve been sworn in.

So that’s how Barack Obama compares to those former Presidents Keith Olbermann suggested were no more qualified than Obama is today to take those 3:00am calls. I note that these former Presidents all had executive experience, either as governors, Vice Presidents, or both, and that even the least qualified among them spent more time in public office prior to being nominated than Obama has. Note also that none of history’s most notorious political lightweights are listed. If a Dan Quayle, a Ted Kennedy, a Lincoln Chafee or even a Kevin Federline had ever come within a hairsbreadth of a major party’s nomination for President, with the support of international media coverage bordering on the hysterically favorable, we would be forced to concede Keith Olbermann’s point. But none of those guys ever came within a country mile of being nominated, much less being at least an even-money bet to win the White House.

Just for good measure, let’s compare Barack Obama with one more former President — one Obama had never resisted being associated with. Before winning his party’s nomination, John F. Kennedy was a genuine war hero who used family connections to get into combat (and actually earned his Purple Hearts, unlike another so decorated Massachusetts senator), who served 14 years in the U.S. Congress (six in the House, eight in the Senate) and who also wrote two best-selling books, one of which was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize. With regard to Obama’s trump card — his skills as an orator — I’ll say this: Jack Kennedy was my President. Jack Kennedy was, for a time, my hero. I knew Jack Kennedy as a public speaker and you, Sen. Obama, are no Jack Kennedy.
In an attempt to distance himself from the Jeremiah Wright ugliness, Barack Obama gave the most important speech of his career recently (See cover story.) — one entirely devoted to the subject of race. Even so, some continue to insist that his campaign isn’t about race, that Geraldine Ferraro was wrong, that a white man as modestly accomplished as Barack Obama could be a major party’s nominee for President. My challenge to those individuals is: name one. Name one white male who, with virtually no record of achievement in elective office or other conspicuous accomplishment, ever became a serious candidate for President of the United States. If you can’t, then I have to conclude that what Geraldine Ferraro said about Barack Obama last week was not only true, it was anything but racist.