By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
The White House is never happy when a former president upstages the current president — which explains why the Obama White House is not happy with Jimmy Carter.
With one casual remark, Carter managed to steal all the headlines and turn today’s battles over health care, energy reform, or economic recovery into a raging debate on race.
Carter first spoke out in response to a question at a town hall meeting in his presidential center about whether South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson’s insult of President Obama on the House floor was race-related. Yes, “I think it’s based on racism,” he replied. “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.”
Later that day, on NBC “Nightly News,” Carter said racism went beyond the Wilson shout-out, and in fact fueled many of today’s anti-Obama protests. “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American.” It’s something he witnessed, growing up in the South, Carter noted, and it hasn’t disappeared. “That racism inclination still exists. And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.”
Carter’s remarks stirred up a firestorm of comment and a sharp rebuke from the Obama administration. At a White House briefing I attended, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that Obama strongly disagreed with Carter. Speaking of opposition to Obama’s health-care reform plan, Gibbs said: “The President does not believe that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin.”
As you’ll remember, that’s the same thing Obama said about his opponents in the 2008 campaign — and, frankly, it’s exactly what Obama has to say now. As our first African-American president, Obama can’t and won’t play the race card. Rightly or wrongly, the moment he starts blaming any disagreements with his policies on race that’ll be the moment he loses the confidence of the American people.
So, who’s right? Carter or Obama? The truth, I believe, lies somewhere in between. But Carter’s more right than wrong, and Obama’s more wrong than right.
Yes, most people who disagree with Obama simply disagree on the issues. And there are legitimate reasons to differ with the president — on energy, on Afghanistan, on health care, on any issue — which, as he insists, have nothing to do with his race. In other words, it’s OK to disagree with Obama. That doesn’t make you a racist.
There’s another group of people who still can’t accept the results of the last election. They’re worried because they feel like their side has lost control. They think the world’s falling apart, and they’re overwhelmed by the changes they face on every front — yes, including not seeing a white man in the Oval Office.
But, believe me, there are also a lot of people who refuse to accept Obama only because he’s black. I know. I receive ugly, racist emails from them every day in response to my own support of Obama. They don’t hesitate to use the “N” word, and they’re not shy about signing their own names.
At least, they’re proud to be racists. In a sense, they’re more honest than many other Obama-haters who are just as racist, but pretend not to be. We saw them at Sarah Palin rallies with monkeys bearing Barack Obama bumper stickers. We saw them at town halls, where they knew they couldn’t use the “N” word, so they called him code names instead — “agitator,” “communist,” “socialist” — and said they want to “take back America” (from the blacks?). We saw them at a recent Washington protest march, carrying drawings of Obama as a witchdoctor with a bone through his nose. I saw one of them standing outside the White House with a poster of Obama as the joker, with painted white face. We saw one of them “joke” about Michelle Obama’s gorilla ancestors. We saw another one, a Confederate flag worshipper from South Carolina, shout out, “You lie!” on the sacred floor of the House of Representatives.
No racism involved? Get real. One thing for sure: Joe Wilson would never have shouted out the same remark — to a white president.