By DeWayne Wickham
This never would have happened on Louis Martin's watch.
The political "prestige and the stature of the president of the United States among blacks" was his business, Martin told a senator who in the early 1960s resisted his attempt to get John F. Kennedy to appoint a black to the federal bench.
Helping presidents navigate racially sensitive issues was what the one-time black newspaperman did for Democratic Oval Office occupants from Kennedy to Jimmy Carter. He was their "go-to" guy. Martin had deep roots and was well-connected to civil rights activists as well as black politicians.
It was Martin's job to keep the presidents he served from stumbling into a race-baiting ambush like the one Andrew Breitbart sprung on the Obama administration and the NAACP. The right-wing blogger set off racial shockwaves when he released a 2-minute, 38-second video clip from a nearly hour-long speech that Shirley Sherrod, a regional USDA official, gave to a Georgia NAACP branch back in March.
This craftily selected excerpt, which Breitbart says he got from an unnamed source, left the impression Sherrod bragged about withholding assistance from a white family facing foreclosure on their farm. That was enough to cause the Obama administration to demand Sherrod's resignation - without giving her a chance to defend herself. The full version of the speech showed Sherrod actually went out of her way to help save the white family's property.
But this revelation came too late to save Obama - who apologized to Sherrod days later during a 7-minute telephone conversation - from an embarrassing racial episode that left his administration scrambling to explain why it had been so quick to throw her under the bus. The most likely reason is that when it comes to issues of race, the Obama administration is a basket case.
Its racial paranoia, though not without provocation, is exacerbated by the absence of someone in the president's circle of advisers who has the job - and connections - to protect Obama's flank on matters of race. This is a troubling omission that leaves the president vulnerable to the racial portion of the guerrilla warfare right-wingers are waging against him. Many black politicians and civil rights activists whose concerns get short shrift are frustrated by a White House that handles racial matters like they're political kryptonite.
Obama can't expect his civil rights allies to buffer him from such attacks. The NAACP blamed Fox News for snookering it into calling Sherrod's words in the truncated version of the speech "shameful." That knee-jerk response came before the civil rights group bothered to view the entire video of Sherrod's address to one of its own chapters.
For years Martin helped Democratic presidents avoid such missteps. But in an administration that believes simply repeating that Obama "is not the president of black America" keeps him from hitting the racial tripwire, there is no one in the West Wing with Martin's portfolio.
That's too bad - and might be politically fatal.
In the multi-front war Obama's political enemies are forcing this nation's first black president to fight, he has left his most vulnerable flank lightly guarded. From the moment he emerged from the pack to become a viable candidate his party's presidential nomination, the race issue has been his Achilles' heel.
And if Obama doesn't get someone on his staff soon who knows how to protect it, it'll be his undoing.