Thursday, October 30, 2008

On Cuba, McCain and Obama resist change

By DeWayne Wickham

As Barack Obama and John McCain crisscrossed the presidential battleground state of Florida on Wednesday, a United Nations vote challenged the idea either man is really serious about bringing meaningful change to America's foreign policy.

By an overwhelming margin of 185-3, the U.N. voted to condemn this country's 46-year-old economic embargo of Cuba. Two countries abstained and two others didn't show up.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba is a relic of the Cold War - and a foreign-policy stalking horse of politicians who shamelessly court Cuban-American voters in South Florida.

While it has failed to choke the economic life out of Cuba's communist government, the embargo has been kept in place to satisfy Cuban-American leaders who are tone deaf to the call for change that has dominated this presidential contest.

Despite the U.N. vote - and despite widespread support here at home for an end to the Bush administration's political intransigence - it doesn't seem likely either McCain or Obama would heed the world's call to end the embargo.

McCain has said he would try to get international support for a further tightening of the embargo.

Obama has said he would loosen restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba. He also would immediately permit Cuban Americans to visit the island nation once a year and send remittances to a wide range of relatives in Cuba.

Under 2004 rules imposed by the Bush administration, Cuban Americans can send $1,200 a year to immediate family members only, and are allowed to visit them just once every three years.

McCain's position represents change in the wrong direction, and Obama's stance is far from enlightened.

By allowing limited travel to Cuba for only one group - the 1.4 million Cuban Americans - this country discriminates against the other 298 million Americans who aren't allowed to travel there.

More importantly, continuing the embargo sharply restricts Cuba's ability to feed and provide medical treatment to its people, condemning untold numbers of Cubans to an early death.
Obama, the front-runner in the presidential race, has vowed to repair America's standing in the world. That won't be easy if he doesn't undo the embargo, which is opposed by virtually every other country in the world. Only Israel and Palau joined the U.S. in voting against the U.N. condemnation of the embargo.

Even Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries heavily dependent on American troops and financial aid, don't support the embargo. Afghanistan voted Wednesday to condemn it, and Iraq voted against it last year. This year Iraq didn't bother to show up for the vote.

The two presidential candidates insist some form of embargo should remain in place until Cuba gives its people more freedom. What makes that laughable is that neither man has called for similar actions against the communist countries of China or Vietnam or against other countries State Department officials say have even worse human-rights records than Cuba.

McCain and Obama have made competing claims to being agents of change, but their support for the embargo mocks those claims. It also threatens the lives of many of Cuba's 11 million people, innocent victims of the long-running tug-of-war between the Cuban government and ours.

Whatever the outcome of next week's election, neither McCain nor Obama can be counted on to do much to bring meaningful change to this lingering Cold War struggle.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Can Obama change America?

By DeWayne Wickham

Long before Colin Powell proclaimed Barack Obama a “transformational figure,” the Illinois senator was already being seen as an otherworldly politician — a black man who might lead America out of the desert of its crippling racial divide.

I don’t know if Obama is a transformational figure, but I’m sure that this is a transformational time in the life of our country.

Obama’s meteoric rise from junior member of the U.S. Senate to front-runner in the presidential race has been widely viewed as a good omen. He’s arrived at the door of this nation’s highest office 60 years after another Democrat, Strom Thurmond, bolted the party to mount an anti-civil rights campaign for the presidency.

Obama is leading the White House race just 45 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed in his historic “I Have a Dream” speech that blacks were still “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

Obama’s on the verge of becoming this nation’s first black president only 16 years after Rodney King — the black motorist whose beating by police sparked the 1992 Los Angeles race riot — asked, “Can we get along?” Violence in that city took 54 lives and resulted in the arrests of 12,000 people.

Obama, who has run a tactically brilliant campaign, is believed by many to have moved America well beyond this ugly past, into a post-racial era. But I don’t think we’ve gone that far yet. Color issues still are too often viewed through one lens.

Back in August a headline in The New York Times asked: “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” The story talked about how the nation’s successful civil rights struggle has produced a new generation of black politicians, who do not see their job as “speaking for black Americans.”

Unanswered by that article — and generally by analysts — is whether Obama’s rise also marks an end to the white politics? In many ways, the black politics of the past 40 years was a parallel universe to the one in which white politicians dwelled.

During much of this time white politicians championed the interests of their white constituents in much the same way as black politicians. But this truth is largely ignored by those who contemplate the post-racial era an Obama presidency might produce. That’s a myopic mistake Obama shouldn’t make if he wins the election.

Obama has been pushed to the edge of victory by an amazing transformation in the political life of this nation. He is the beneficiary of a shift across racial and generational lines. He leads Republican John McCain among voters of all ages, genders and educational levels.

If he wins, Obama’s biggest challenge will be to not undermine this unusual coalition by governing as an old-line politician — either black or white. This doesn’t mean he should ignore the legitimate interests of one group to placate the other.

Instead he should remember what he told me during a July 2007 interview about how he can balance the interests of blacks and whites.

“The more we can say we’re going to fight on behalf of all working Americans and we’re going to do extra stuff for those who need the most help, that’s an argument we can win,” he said.

Now that's an approach to problem solving that can transform this country.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Not so subtle racism

By DeWayne Wickham

When you get right down to it, Diane Fedele and David Duke are kindred souls.

Fedele, the president of a California conservative Republican women’s group, resigned Wednesday after being harshly criticized for sending a racist depiction of Barack Obama to the organization’s members. Duke is the former Louisiana state legislator and Ku Klux Klan leader who makes little effort to disguise his racist contempt for the black presidential candidate.

The offensive image Fedele circulated appeared in a recent newsletter of the Chaffey Community Republican Women, Federated organization. It showed Obama’s face on a fake $10 food stamp bill surrounded by a slice of watermelon, a bucket of fried chicken, a rack of barbecued ribs and a pitcher of Kool-Aid.

“I do not think like a bigot, and because of that fact, I did not view this as racial, because I do not have a racially discriminating point of view,” Fedele wrote in her resignation letter, the Inland Daily Bulletin reported.
Well, then what was the point of linking Obama to food stamps and the welfare imagery which that government handout invokes? Why tie him to watermelon, fried chicken and ribs in this way? Was it because Obama has promised to give federal subsidies to hog and chicken farmers, and watermelon growers, if he makes it into the White House? Or did the newsletter’s depiction of Obama have another, more odious, connection?

In his 1986 book “Sambo: the Rise & Demise of an American Jester,” Joseph Boskin talked of how such imagery has been used to ridicule blacks, whose meals during slavery often consisted of pork scraps, chicken and watermelon. One early 20th century post card carried the picture of a black man, with a watermelon tucked under each arm, looking longingly at a chicken. This caricature of a black man struggling to choose between watermelon and chicken had the following caption: “Dis am de wurst perdickermunt ob mah life!”

More recently golfer Fuzzy Zoeller stumbled over his tongue in 1997 after Tiger Woods became the first black to win the Masters golf tournament. Winners of this prestigious sporting event get to pick the menu for the Champions Dinner the following year. Tell him not to serve fried chicken, Zoeller said to reporters following Woods’ victory. Zoeller apologized the next day, saying his comments were not meant to be racist.

Like Zoeller, Fedele should have known better. That she thought she could get away with branding Obama with such racially offensive imagery puts her in the company of Duke, who now heads a group called the European American Unity and Rights Organization. Shortly after Obama wrapped up the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Duke posted a commentary on his website in which he said the Illinois senator’s victory should be a warning sign to white Americans.

“Now the dreams of our forefathers have morphed into our own living nightmares in which anti-white racism and white self-hate dominate the political and media landscape,” Duke wrote. If elected president, Obama “will be a clear signal for millions of our people. Obama is a visual aid for white Americans who just don’t get it yet that we have lost control of our country, and unless we get it back we are heading for complete annihilation as a people.”

The warning that Duke sounded is different only in degree from that which Fedele circulated. It was only when there was a loud public outcry that Fedele pulled back – though not far – from what she did. She had tried to make an “ideological statement, not a racist one,” Fedele explained. But for all but the most na├»ve, the images on the phony money contradicts that assertion.

While she lacks David Duke’s shrillness, Diane Fedele was speaking in a similar voice when she tried to sound an alarm about the looming possibility that Barack Obama might become the next president of the United States.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Obama: The new "Powell doctrine"

By DeWayne Wickham

When you think about it, Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama should come as no surprise.

Not because, as some small minds reason, the former secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate are both African-American. Nor did Powell, a Republican, do it to get even with the Bush administration he once served for making him the foil for its rush to war in Iraq.

There was nothing petty about the choice Powell announced Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. It is a logical extension of his view of America's role as the world's dominant force for good. In telling moderator Tom Brokaw that Obama is his choice for president, the man who was the most respected member of the Bush administration laid out a new "Powell doctrine."

The next president, he said, should be someone who has the ability to inspire and reach out to all Americans, and has the rhetorical ability and the substance to lead the nation and the world during troubled times.

Powell's endorsement of Obama amounts to a prescription for civilian leadership at a critical time that complements the first Powell doctrine, which he articulated after the United States went to war in 1991 to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

While serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell said this country should send its troops into combat only when America's vital interests are at stake. And in such a situation, he said, we should use decisive force to achieve a clearly defined victory and exit strategy.

Back then, Powell wanted to win a war. Now he wants to secure the future of our nation. He sees Obama as "a transformational figure" among a new generation of world leaders who, more than John McCain, can lead America at the critical juncture in our history.

And so the more important question isn't why Powell endorsed Obama, but whether his endorsement will have a significant impact, coming as it did slightly more than two weeks before Election Day.

I don't think so.

The die is cast in this contest. While the outcome might not appear certain, I suspect that the vast majority of Americans — even those who claim to remain uncommitted — have decided how they'll vote Nov. 4.

If we can believe what people are telling pollsters, Obama already enjoys the backing of nearly every black voter, and he has a 14 percentage point lead over McCain among women and a 5 point edge with men. He also leads McCain among voters of every age category and education level, according a recent Gallup Poll. McCain has a 4 point lead over Obama with white voters but trails Obama by 10 points among independents.

By endorsing Obama at this late point in the campaign, Powell has just thrown some red meat to the news media's chattering class — too many of whom cover the presidential race like the hapless band of newsmen who reported on an African war in Scoop, Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel about the journalism profession. For them, Powell's endorsement is a big story, but in truth it will have more historical importance than political impact.

From a political perspective, the Obama train had already left the station and was hurtling toward the finish line when Powell got onboard. But as a matter of history, his decision to back Obama could make the second Powell doctrine as an important a prescription as the first.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How much is "Bradley effect" a thing of the past?

By DeWayne Wickham

It’s quite possible that when Americans go to the polls next month to select the next president, race will be of little consequence.

I want to believe that the kind of unstated — and unforeseen — racism widely thought to have scuttled the 1982 California gubernatorial campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley is gone forever.

I’m hopeful the hidden bigotry that appears to explain why L. Douglas Wilder’s 15-point lead nine days before Virginia’s 1989 gubernatorial election translated into a victory of less than 1 percent is a thing of the past.

Earlier this month, pollster John Zogby said this so-called “Bradley effect” likely won’t be a factor in the presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Why? In the vast majority of 2008 Democratic primaries, “there was no significant difference between our final polling results and the actual results,” Zogby wrote for “Last-minute voters were fairly evenly split between Hillary Clinton and Obama supporters in many key states.”

If that reassures you, it shouldn’t.Measuring this year’s Democratic primaries against Bradley’s 1982 general election is a warped comparison.

Racism didn’t make its appearance in the California contest until the general election, when state voters chose between Bradley, a black Democrat, and George Deukmejian, his white Republican opponent.The same was true in Virginia. Wilder’s 1989 Democratic primary victory offered no hint that many voters harbored a hidden resistance to black candidates.Contrary to what Zogby suggests, there is reason to worry that the attitudes behind the Bradley effect still infect American politics.

In 2006, Massachusetts voters, among the most liberal in the country, made Deval Patrick just the second black elected governor in history. His victory came in a Democratic landslide that gave the party control of all six statewide offices for the first time in 22 years.

But Patrick received the fewest votes of any candidate on the party’s statewide ticket.“That’s very unusual,” said Ronald Walters, a professor of government and political science at the University of Maryland and author of “Black Presidential Politics in America.”

Candidates at the top of a party’s ticket usually get the most votes. But Patrick received at least 200,000 fewer votes than Democrats elected to the positions of attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and state auditor.

Far more voters cast ballots for Patrick’s Republican opponent than voted for any of the GOP challengers who lost to the other Democrats seeking statewide office.

It’s possible that was due to something other than the color of Patrick’s skin. But because Patrick won by a comfortable margin, it seems likely Zogby and other political analysts simply missed seeing signs that the Bradley effect still exists.

Walters finds the results of Massachusetts’ 2006 election curious, but he doesn’t think the Bradley effect will hurt Obama’s chances of becoming the nation’s first black president.

He believes it can’t stand up to the large numbers of new voters expected to heavily favor Obama. Walters may be right.

But even if he is, that doesn’t mean the Bradley effect no longer operates as a force in this nation’s political life.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Race: An issue that shouldn't be ignored

By DeWayne Wickham

Like the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” the issue of race is largely unacknowledged by the presidential candidates who are hurtling towards the Election Day finish line.

In the opening page of Ellison’s novel, which won the 1953 National Book Award, the main character – an unnamed black man – explains that he’s invisible not because he is a ghostly creation of Edgar Allen Poe or Hollywood filmmakers. He is unseen, he says, because people have chosen to ignore his existence.

And so it is in the current presidential contest with the matter of race.

Neither Republican John McCain nor Democrat Barack Obama has shown a willingness to address the peculiar effects of this nation’s lingering racism – except for the Philadelphia address Obama was pressured into giving to distance himself from his former pastor’s scandalous talk.

Each man, for vastly different reasons, has treated race as a invisible issue. McCain, because Republicans effectively severed their ties to blacks in 1968 when they embraced a Southern strategy that pandered to the rear guard of the Dixiecrat movement. Obama, because his political handlers fear that as the first black to win the presidential nomination of a major party he cannot risk being pigeon-holed as a “black politician.”

And so it may be left to Bob Schieffer, the moderator of tomorrow’s final presidential debate, to force Obama and McCain to talk about race. Getting presidential candidates to do this is not unchartered ground for Schieffer, the chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and host of “Face the Nation.”

Four years ago, he was the only presidential debate moderator to put a race question to President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry. “Do you see a need for affirmative action programs, or have we moved far enough along that we no longer need to use race and gender as a factor in school admissions and federal and state contracts and so on?” he asked.

In 2000, it was an audience member who kept the presidential candidates from completely ducking a public discussion of race with a question she put to Texas Gov. Bush and Vice President Al Gore during the third debate. “How will your administration address diversity, inclusiveness, and what role will affirmative action play in your overall plan?” the woman asked.

No, neither of these questions was a deep probe of America’s long-running race problems, but they kept the issue visible at an important moment. This time around Schieffer can accomplish more.

By asking McCain and Obama what they would do to close the yawning unemployment gap between blacks and whites, Schieffer can make these problems visible to many Americans. By pressing them to say something about the wide disparities in the medical treatment that leave blacks far less likely than whites to received recommended care, or asking what they’ll do to close the achievement gap between black and white public school students, he can force them to address these troubling matters.

Unless these long-standing ills are address, no solution to America’s ailing economy will produce a result that’s fair to all its citizens. Sure, the presidential campaign isn’t just about race, but this nation’s continuing racial problems ought to be a serious part of the dialogue.

“When one is invisible he finds such problems as good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, of such shifting shapes that he confuses one with the other, depending upon who happens to be looking through him at the time,” Ellison wrote in the “Invisible Man.”

Neither McCain nor Obama should be allowed to avoid giving specific answers to specific questions about the problems that afflict blacks.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Is it kryptonite for Obama to address black problems?


During a televised analysis of Tuesday night's presidential debate, David Gergen lobbed a chunk of kryptonite into the discussion.

"I think it's too early to declare victory... because Barack Obama is black. And until we play out the issue of race in this country... I'm not sure the polls are totally believable," said Gergen, a Harvard University professor and one-time communications director for President Ronald Reagan.

His words caused others on the CNN panel, an eclectic group of journalists, political partisans and partisan journalists, to grimace like Superman at the first sign of kryptonite.

One panelist, writer and television legal analyst Jeffery Toobin, tried to fend off Gergen's warning. He said there were no signs during the primaries to suggest race might be a factor in the race between Obama and Republican John McCain. The primary election polls, Toobin said, were pretty accurate.

Another panelist, CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, tiptoed around a direct answer when CNN host Anderson Cooper asked her if the Obama campaign was concerned some white voters might be misleading pollsters about which candidate they'll support.

"They're not cocky at this point," was her tepid answer. And in fact, they shouldn't be.

From the beginning, race has been a serious subplot in Barack Obama's White House campaign. It's hovered largely below the radar used by most journalists and pundits to gauge the presidential contest, and that's why it hasn't been widely discussed. But that hasn't made it less of a reality.

Part of Obama's race problem is something called "the Bradley effect."
Back in October 1982, Tom Bradley, the first black mayor Los Angeles, was leading state Attorney General George Deukmejian by 15 percentage points in the California governor's race. Deukmejian's campaign manager predicted a hidden racial bias might determine the outcome.

"If we are down only five points or less in the polls at election time, we're going to win," Bill Roberts predicted.

By the eve of the election, Deukmejian had cut Bradley's lead to 3 percentage points, and he won a razor-thin victory on Election Day.

In 1989, New York City mayoral candidate David Dinkins and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Douglas Wilder, both black, barely won their elections after enjoying double-digit leads in polls.

Two years ago, Democrat Harold Ford's attempt to become Tennessee's first black U.S. senator suffered irreparable damage after Republicans produced an ad in which a white woman said she'd met Ford at a Playboy party, then winked into the camera and urged Ford to call her.

Race may not be such an obvious factor in next month's election, but it looms as a possible spoiler.

We won't know until the votes are counted if the Bradley effect is still a force in this nation's politics, or whether Obama's strategy of avoiding discussion of black issues will produce the results he wants.

As much as possible, Obama's campaign has kept him from talking about his ideas for reducing the black unemployment rate, which has been nearly double that of whites during George Bush's presidency.

Obama hasn't publicly discussed his plans for closing the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites, or the gaps in earnings and health care.
While he's offered specific solutions to problems affecting other groups, Obama fears that addressing the problems of blacks would label him the presidential candidate of black America only.

The problem with this approach is that offering blacks nothing beyond his candidacy may not get Obama a massive increase in black turnout. And he may well need that turnout to win the White House.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

O.J. Simpson: If he only had a brain

By DeWayne Wickham

A few days after O.J. Simpson was acquitted in 1995 of the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, I asked Johnnie Cochran if the former NFL superstar was going to move abroad to restart his life.

"No, but he probably should," said Cochran, who was Simpson's lead attorney. But instead of packing up and flying off to the Bahamas or Cayman Islands, Simpson left Los Angeles in 2000 for Miami — a decision that set in motion a series of bad acts that ultimately resulted in a guilty verdict that could put him behind bars for life.

Simpson would have been smart to leave the country to get beyond the unflinching glare of the vast majority of Americans who believe he got away with murder. But as he has proved over and over again since his murder trial acquittal, Simpson isn't a smart guy.

He hardly had time to settle into his Florida home before he was back in court. That time, Simpson was charged with assaulting a neighbor during a road-rage incident. As he entered a Miami courthouse in 2001 for that trial, Simpson was heard whistling "If I Only Had a Brain," a prophetic tune from “The Wizard of OZ.” Still, he was acquitted, escaping a possible 16-year prison term.

Later that year, his house was raided by federal and local law enforcement agents after his name was mentioned during a wiretapped conversation between suspects in an international drug case.

The agents didn't find any illegal drugs, but they did seize some satellite TV equipment. Four years later, a Florida judge ordered Simpson to pay $25,000 for allegedly using two "bootloaders" that were taken from his house in that raid to steal signals from Direc TV.

Then, in a warped decision that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Simpson lacks good sense, it was announced in 2006 that he had written a book titled “If I Did It.” In it, Simpson discussed how he would have killed his ex-wife and her friend, if he had committed the double murder — which he continues to deny. After a storm of protest, Simpson's book deal fell through.

But less than a year later, he was back in the news, and this time Simpson's luck ran out. While in Las Vegas to attend a friend's wedding, he enlisted the help of five seedy characters to recover some personal items he claimed were stolen from him and ended up in the possession of two sleazy sports memorabilia peddlers. The resulting six-minute confrontation caused him to be charged with kidnapping and armed robbery.

The night before Las Vegas police arrested him, Simpson emerged from his friend's wedding ceremony whistling “If I Only Had a Brain.”

A lot of people see poetic justice in the guilty verdict the Las Vegas jury gave Simpson in a case that pales in comparison with the grisly murders he was acquitted of 13 years ago. Even some of the jurors admitted they believed that Simpson got away with murder in that 1995 case, though they said it had no impact on their verdict.

What's certain is that Simpson was widely despised after he was set free in Los Angeles and has done nothing in the years since to assuage that harsh judgment. Instead, he has seemingly taunted his critics with his run-ins with the law and escapes from justice — until now.

And as he sits in jail awaiting his sentence, I can only imagine that O.J. Simpson spends a lot of time wondering why he didn't move abroad years ago — while he whistles “If I Only Had a Brain.”

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Florida's Jewish vote, a laughing matter

By DeWayne Wickham

If Barack Obama manages to win Florida in next month's presidential election, he may owe as much to Sarah Silverman as to Bill Clinton.

The former president went to the University of Central Florida on Wednesday to tout the candidacy of Obama, who snatched the Democratic Party presidential nomination from Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

His willingness to campaign for Obama in a state Democrats have won just once in the last 40 years - that was when Clinton himself won re-election in a landslide in 1996 - is expected to boost the Illinois senator's chances of winning Florida's electoral votes.

But Silverman's effort may have even more impact. She's the potty-mouth Jewish stand-up comic who once told Maxim magazine, "I'm not trying to offend people - I'm trying to surprise them."

Well, she certainly must have surprised the campaign of Republican John McCain with "The Great Schlep," a Web video urging young Jews to pressure their grandparents in Florida to vote for Obama.

"If you knew that visiting your grandparents would change the world, would you do it? Well, of course you would," Silverman says in the opening moments of the four-minute 22-second video that is as irreverent as it is funny. "I'm making this video to urge you, all of you, to schlep over to Florida and convince your grandparents to vote Obama."

To win in Florida, Obama needs a sizeable share of the white vote, though not necessarily a majority. He also needs to make a strong showing among black and Hispanic voters. His support from Jews is expected to be a key factor in how he does with whites - a point not lost on Silverman.

"If Barack Obama doesn't become the next president of the United States, I'm going to blame the Jews," she says on the video. She then riffs about how elderly Jewish women and young black men share a fondness for track suits, Cadillacs, "and bling, and money and jewelry and stuff."

"You don't have to use facts, use threats,"Silverman advises young Jews.Grandparents who vote for Obama can count on another visit this year from their grandchildren, she says. And those who don't? "Let's just hope they stay healthy until next year," she jokes.

Now that's funny. It's also the kind of Jewish humor that only a Jew can get away with.

I don't know why McCain hasn't come up with his own slapstick humor to counter Silverman's effort. Surely there must be one Jewish funnyman or woman willing to produce some laughs - and votes - for the Arizona senator.

If not, he ought to ask comedian Dennis Miller, a "born-again Republican," to use his biting political satire to get Floridians laughing at Obama rather than voting for him.

I don't know what the outcome of this presidential election will be, but it seems to me that McCain is giving up too much ground to ultimately prevail. Maybe he has a "straight face" strategy to go with his "straight talk" campaign.

Given the advantage Obama now enjoys in polls in critical states like Florida, McCain shouldn't discount the power of laughter to help land him in the White House.

Obama: Should sting like a butterfly, not fight like Tyson

By DeWayne Wickham

I watched Friday's presidential debate with my wife and father-in-law, two rabid supporters of Barack Obama's candidacy. After the suspense created by John McCain's threatened withdrawal, they greeted his decision to show up with the anticipation of the fight fans who cheered Mike Tyson on to victory when he dominated heavyweight boxing.

What they wanted was for Obama to score a first-round knockout, as Tyson did with machine-like efficiency throughout much of his career. What they got from the Democratic nominee was a performance that fell short of their expectations.

They wanted a one-sided slugfest. What they got was a crafty boxing match in which Obama behaved more like Muhammad Ali than "Iron Mike." Obama out-pointed McCain, his Republican opponent, with verbal punches and jabs that while not drawing blood, kept the ex-Navy fighter pilot off balance. There were no knockdowns, and if Obama pulled some punches — as when he failed to respond to McCain's repeated assertions that he didn't understand something — that's understandable.

After all, this wasn't a replay of Joe Louis' historic rematch with Max Schmeling, when the globe was hurtling toward World War II. On the eve of that 1938 fight, President Franklin Roosevelt told Louis at a White House meeting: "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany."

Back then, Americans wanted to see Louis, a black man, get the better of Schmeling, a poster child of Adolf Hitler's Aryan supremacy claim. But in this presidential race, Obama has to avoid tripping over this nation's racial fault line. He can disagree with McCain, an aging, white war hero and four-term U.S. senator, but he can't appear to be too disagreeable when taking him on.

That's because race still matters in the politics of this nation. When asked whether Obama's race would influence how they'll vote, 10% of whites said it makes them "less likely to vote" to elect him this country's first black president, according to a recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll.

At a time when Obama is the lone black, among the 100 U.S. senators, and just two of the 50 governors are black, the poll found that 16% of whites believe that blacks already have too much political influence. And 21% of whites think black leaders "have been trying to push too fast," while 31% of whites said blacks are responsible for most of the nation's racial tensions. To win the presidency, Obama has to avoid being seen as too black, too pushy and too hungry to wield the powers of the presidency.

The white vote is the most fragile part of the coalition he has cobbled together. To win in November, Obama must convince a sizeable number (though not necessarily a majority) of whites that they can trust him — and he must allay the fears of some that a black man can't be trusted to treat whites fairly if he gets the Oval Office job.

Ironically, Friday's debate was held on the campus of the University of Mississippi, a school that was a hotbed of racial bigotry in the early 1960s when segregationist Ross Barnett, then the state's governor, tried mightily to keep blacks out of Ole Miss.

Now, nearly a half-century later, Obama seeks access to this nation's most segregated public institution — the presidency of the United States.

And with two more presidential debates left before voters go to the polls, he understands that while he has to get the best of McCain, he cannot be seen to have battered him unmercifully without causing some people to vote their racial fears.