Colin Powell was considered by many to be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 until withdrawing after his wife, Alma, publicly voiced her fear on 60 Minutes that he would be assassinated on the basis of his race.
Hillary Clinton, in a major campaign faux pas, brought the subject back to the forefront when, on May 23, 2008, in response to the question of why she had not bowed out of the Democratic primary race despite Barack Obama’s clear status as the presumptive nominee said, “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”
Barack Obama has not steered clear of the idea that race will be used against him. Just a few days ago in a speech in Jacksonville, Florida, he said:
It is going to be very difficult for Republicans to run on their stewardship of the economy or their outstanding foreign policy. We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run. They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?
I hope that Obama is wrong. And I think he is, though maybe I’m being naive.
Here’s what I hope and pray is true of America at this moment in our history; I hope and pray we are color blind enough to …
■ vote for or against a man – or woman – no matter what his or her race;
■ affirm or criticize a candidate no matter what his or her race; and
■ when a person so follows his or her conscience in voting, affirming or criticizing, we not accuse them of racism.
If Obama wants to woo the hearts of swing voters in the face of real or perceived prejudice, he could take a page from Ronald Reagan’s game plan to turn a negative into a positive. When asked (again and again) if it was legitimate to make age an election issue, in a debate with Walter Mondale, he used his non-abrasive brand of humor to neutralize the power of the question to divide:
I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.