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Thin Skinned Obama Operatives.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post put this story, "Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause," on its front page.

The story retells all sorts of alleged racists that Obama campaigners have run into on the campaign trail. It's a difficult story to respond to without coming off as indifferent to the [sarcasm]ubiquitous scourge of racism that still plagues America[/sarcasm].

I am going to give it a shot, anyway.

When I heard the story's writer, Kevin Merida, on XM's POTUS '08 channel discussing the article, my blood started to boil. I think that was Kevin's intended consequence, only in a completely different way.

My blood started to boil, not because I was so upset that ignorant people were being mean to Obama's field staffers and volunteers. No, I was upset, because, as a veteran of retail politics, having worked on campaigns in nearly two dozen states, I have seen far worse than what is allegedly chronicled in the Washington Post story.

I also tend to believe that some of the incidents in the story are just that-- stories. Entirely made up. Some are exaggerated. And some are probably 100% true, if I know my electorate.

Let's dive into this article and see what we can find:

Danielle Ross was alone in an empty room at the Obama campaign headquarters in Kokomo, Ind., a cellphone in one hand, a voter call list in the other. She was stretched out on the carpeted floor wearing laceless sky-blue Converses, stories from the trail on her mind. It was the day before Indiana's primary, and she had just been chased by dogs while canvassing in a Kokomo suburb. But that was not the worst thing to occur since she postponed her sophomore year at Middle Tennessee State University, in part to hopscotch America stumping for Barack Obama.

Here's the worst: In Muncie, a factory town in the east-central part of Indiana, Ross and her cohorts were soliciting support for Obama at malls, on street corners and in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and they ran into "a horrible response," as Ross put it, a level of anti-black sentiment that none of them had anticipated.

"The first person I encountered was like, 'I'll never vote for a black person,' " recalled Ross, who is white and just turned 20. "People just weren't receptive."

A horrible response? People weren't receptive? How many responses and receptions does this 20-year-old have to compare against? In retail politics, you aim for 100 people, you'll hit 10. That's not evidence of bigotry. It's evidence of Obama's limited appeal.

I can buy the idea that Danielle Ross felt impatient and even personally attacked as people sneered and grimaced and shook their heads "no" at her. Some people probably yelled nasty things and did the thumbs down right in her face and otherwise let their feelings be known. I am sure there were dogs in Kokomo, and they may have even barked at her. It's rough stuff out there.

How do I know this? I've been in her shoes. I have led teams of people in her shoes. I've seen it. It can really demoralize a person to do retail politics, even in friendly political territory.

What I don't buy about her story is that the first person she encountered said he or she wouldn't vote for a black person. That just does not pass the smell test. But it certain does fit a certain narrative.

The writer of this article got taken. Willingly. Listening to him on XM, he clearly had an agenda. I tuned in just after the interview started, and I was astonished to learn at the end of the interview that he was not an Obama campaign staffer but an ostensibly objective reporter.

If I were interviewing him, I would have asked why in the bloody hell [there goes my blood boiling again-- keep reading to find out why] he didn't get any stories from other campaigns, as a control group, to determine whether these sorts of things happen to lots of candidates of all backgrounds.

NEWSFLASH, newsman: They do.

I would have also asked him if he had personally witnessed any of the incidents he describes. Or if any of it was even verifiable, since it seems like he just took the word of people with high incentives to make up these stories.

Of the stories in the article, I am sure some of those anecdotes happened. Some are based on real events but deeply exaggerated. And some are just (rather obviously) made up entirely. Ultimately, though, this story strings together a series of innuendos and tall tales and passes them off as a factual pattern.

Back to the article:

For all the hope and excitement Obama's candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can't fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.

Okay, let's see if I faced those, as a Republican field operative, directed toward me and my candidates:

Racially derogatory names: check. Unless it doesn't count, since I am white.

Malicious rants and ugly stereotyping: pretty much non-stop, check and check.

As for people who can't fathom that Obama could become the first black president: it's difficult for me to fathom. That doesn't mean that people can't fathom an African-American winning the White House. It just means that it's hard to imagine Obama, such a deeply flawed candidate as well as individual, being the first one.

I've always felt it would have to be a Republican, someone outside the Jackson/Sharpton political establishment. Someone with national security credentials. Someone moderate, maybe even right of center. Someone with a stellar track record of successful experience.

More from the article:

Victoria Switzer, a retired social studies teacher, was on phone-bank duty one night during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. One night was all she could take: "It wasn't pretty." She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn't possibly vote for Obama and concluded: "Hang that darky from a tree!"

Who even uses that phrase? It just sounds made up.

This should have tripped the wire on any truth detector this reporter had. To relay this sort of unsubstantiated garbage so willingly only incites passions based on some alleged event that likely did not happen.

Could it have happened? It's possible.

It's just not probable. And a good reporter would have tried to snag Victoria Switzer's call list, figure out who it was, and at least try to verify whether it actually happened. My strong hunch is that it didn't happen. My hunch is that the reporter went trolling for anti-Obama racism, and his supporters were more than willing to oblige. The reporter was willing to believe terrible stories, because they fit into the story he was already writing; people were able to get away with exaggerating and making things up, because, heck, he needed them to substantiate what he believed before he wrote the article.

The article details a veritable reign of terror against Obama:

The bigotry has gone beyond words. In Vincennes, the Obama campaign office was vandalized at 2 a.m. on the eve of the primary, according to police. A large plate-glass window was smashed, an American flag stolen. Other windows were spray-painted with references to Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and other political messages: "Hamas votes BHO" and "We don't cling to guns or religion. Goddamn Wright."

Ray McCormick was notified of the incident at about 2:45 a.m. A farmer and conservationist, McCormick had erected a giant billboard on a major highway on behalf of Farmers for Obama. He also was housing the Obama campaign worker manning the office. When McCormick arrived at the office, about two hours before he was due out of bed to plant corn, he grabbed his camera and wanted to alert the media. "I thought, this is a big deal." But he was told Obama campaign officials didn't want to make a big deal of the incident. McCormick took photos anyway and distributed some.

"The pictures represent what we are breaking through and overcoming," he said. As McCormick, who is white, sees it, Obama is succeeding despite these incidents. Later, there would be bomb threats to three Obama campaign offices in Indiana, including the one in Vincennes, according to campaign sources.

Here's one of the pictures:


That's terrible. Campaign vandalism is awful. It is an attack on free speech and should be taken seriously. But that's not evidence of anti-black bigotry. I have personally had to help clean up Republican campaign offices, plural, that have been vandalized in a similar fashion, with windows broken, nasty things written with spray paint, and so on. To elevate this sort of criminal mischief, however, into some sort of evidence that there is widespread bigotry targeted narrowly against Barack Obama or broadly against African-Americans is absurd.

But, again, it fits the narrative.

In the American Midwest, parades are still a huge deal. I cannot stress this enough. For political parties, they are some of the most important events of the year. That's why this line from the article was a flashback:

At Scranton's annual Saint Patrick's Day parade, some of the green Obama signs distributed by staffers were burned along the parade route.

This is part of the game. Signs and banners are distributed widely. People subvert the other side, Spy vs. Spy style. I've seen signs burned. I have seen other stickers slapped onto them, making them say things like, "Candidate Joe..." "...is a child molester" or, slightly more pertinent, "...takes money from Enron lobbyists." It's a game that people play. And every now and then, it's initiated entirely from individual citizens, who flamboyantly rip up your sign no more than a few seconds after you've given it to them.

Again, not evidence of bigotry, even if it did involve fire. But, again, it does fit the narrative.

Back to the pattern of bigotry:

In a letter to the editor published in a local paper, Tunkhannock Borough Mayor Norm Ball explained his support of Hillary Clinton this way: "Barack Hussein Obama and all of his talk will do nothing for our country. There is so much that people don't know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can't convince me that some of that didn't rub off on him.

"No, I want a president that will salute our flag, and put their hand on the Bible when they take the oath of office."

Obama's campaign workers have grown wearily accustomed to the lies about the candidate's supposed radical Muslim ties and lack of patriotism. But they are sometimes astonished when public officials such as Ball or others representing the campaign of their opponent traffic in these falsehoods.

Okay, so this Hillary supporter lacks tact and is probably just repeating things he's heard. But is he really trafficking in falsehoods? I wouldn't be so sure, as Stanford's Islam expert Daniel Pipes points out.

This is perhaps the most sinister part of this article. It attempts to stifle serious discourse on Obama's roots, when there are some very real questions that people will want answered by the end of the campaign. In conversations with rabid Obama supporters, I hear this sort of thing quite a bit. "There are millions of idiot Americans who actually believe Obama is Muslim."

Well, maybe. But then there's those of us who think Obama is not being entirely truthful about his upbringing and agree with Daniel Pipes when he asserts:

Obama's having been born and raised a Muslim and having left the faith to become a Christian make him neither more nor less qualified to become president of the United States. But if he was born and raised a Muslim and is now hiding that fact, this points to a major deceit, a fundamental misrepresentation about himself that has profound implications about his character and his suitability as president.

Obama's youth in Indonesia, his enrollment in schools as a Muslim, his comment in his book about goofing off during Koranic studies, his ability to recite Muslim calls to prayer in Arabic even today, and all of the other anecdotes are totally legitimate. Americans have every right to scrutinize their potential Commander-in-Chief, including whether or not he shares a basic worldview ("America is exceptional; America is awesome; America is worth fighting for"), shaped as a child. In some ways, his overseas experiences as a boy might actually be a plus in today's world-- but not if it seems like he is hiding something.

For this discussion to be off limits is ridiculous. And, believe me, it won't be off limits. And people will cry foul. They will say, "Obama is being swiftboated." But these things will get out there.

Obama would be wise to address them sooner rather than later, on his own terms rather than in response to blog posts and campaign ads. He won't do that, though, because Kevin Merida and other writers have created a forcefield around Obama on this topic. Anyone who dares discuss it must be some sort of ignorant bigot. End of story.

The article has plenty of other anecdotes preemptively justifying Obama's terrible showing in West Virginia. Every anecdote was from the perspective of Obama's campaign, though. There was no attempt to look at other sides.

And that's what makes my blood boil. On the campaign trail, I have taken my share of abuse. I never expected the media to tell my story, verbatim.

A few percent of the population gets REALLY emotional about their politics, and they will unleash on you with anti-semitic, racist, sexist, and otherwise bizarre (hypersexualized, paranoid, or violent imagery) slurs. Sometimes they even believe what they are saying, although mostly they are just trying to irritate you.

I've even been physically roughed up a bit (not too bad, though... really, mom) by union thugs on the campaign trail. It's rough out there. And the majority of aggressive, hostile, and mean-spirited campaigning, dirty tricks, and vandalism/intimidation flows from left to right. We're talking campaign vans getting their tires slashed. We're talking Kristallnacht to the point that many Republican campaigns have staffers spend the night in the office, or hire security guards, on certain nights. We're talking signs being destroyed and vandalized and stolen. We're talking about threatening voicemails being left on campaign message machines. We're talking about people following around (very creepy) and harassing volunteers canvassing neighborhoods. We're talking all kinds of crazy stuff.

None of this has ever seemed particularly newsworthy. There are yahoos out there. They are jerks toward campaigns. They say and do mean-spirited things. They are also few in number and proportion to the population. More importantly, they are not just anti-black racists.

They are left-wing anti-Jew knuckleheads, who spout some of the most off-the-wall conspiracy theories about flesh-eating Republican Jews in the American government. Seriously. Flesh-eating. Apparently it's part of some initiation into some secret society... to eat human flesh.


They are atheist anti-Christian commandos who say things like they hope there is a hell so I and all other right wing Christians can go there when we die. This sort of stuff is totally unprovoked, other than asking for their support.

They are tough guy (...stuck in the...) Civil War-era Democrat patriarchs who tell you they'd gladly take your female candidate (Elizbeth Dole) behind the woodshed and show her a thing or two, but there's no way in hell they'd vote for the b1tc#.

There are "former life-long Republicans" who are tell you weird and bizarre tales about your candidate (Cheney) and his experimentation with witchcraft.

These things and more happen. To Republicans. They have all happened to me. At the same time, though, these sorts of things remain a small part of campaigning. Most people appreciate information. Most people like to engage in the mainstream of political discourse. Most people, even if they don't like your party or your candidates, will just say, "no thank you" or "I am not interested."

Are there a few bad apples? Of course. A lot of them are on union or ACORN payrolls.

Does the Obama campaign run into them? Oh, without a doubt, especially if they are targeting Democrats.

Is this a unique phenomenon, driven by racism? Absolutely not.

This is why my blood boiled when listening to Kevin Merida on the radio, then reading his front page Washington Post story. It completely omits the other side of the story. He comes off as even more of an Obama operative than the rest of the fawning news establishment in this country.

The article, timed to come out on the day that Hillary Clinton was expected to beat Barack Obama by 20 or more points (she ended up winning by 41%), fit right into the narrative that West Virginians specifically and white people around the country more generally are racists. At the same time, though, the article doesn't really stress to the reader that most of the alleged bigots are more likely than not Democrats (which is why they are being targeted to vote in the primary).

The article does a lot of things, namely:
1) it serves as a preemptive strike against attacks on Obama, his patriotism, his youth, and so forth, priming the agenda for pro-Obama stories.
2) it puts the McCain campaign and Republicans on the defensive on the issue of race, putting the burden of proof on Republicans. Just watch as this unfolds between now and November.
3) it plays on all sorts of stereotypes to rile up African-American voters, who must turn out in record numbers for Obama to have any chance in November.
4) it appeals to white people without particular political or ideological compasses to rally behind the unfairly-smeared victim, the implication being that if you are against Obama, you're racist, but you can absolve yourself by supporting Obama.

We keep hearing that Obama has problems with white voters. Well, yeah. But he also has problems with Asians and Hispanics/Latinos. And all sorts of other demographics. His problems are masked by getting 90+% of the total black vote and 97% of the black male vote in places like North Carolina. Ninety-seven percent. It's staggering.

This election is already frustrating for a lot of reasons (no discussion on entitlement reform; no discussion of tax reform, other than tax hikes; lots of discussion on trade isolationism and fleeing Iraq and socializing another 1/6 of our economy-- health care). I just hope, though, people can see through articles like the one on the front page of the Washington Post earlier this week. And I hope the Obama operatives grow a little thicker skin, for their sake.

Posted by Will Franklin · 15 May 2008 04:22 PM