Wednesday at the National Press Club, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the former House minority leader, announced that he was taking steps to run for president. He assailed President Bush’s record on education, fiscal responsibility, and foreign policy. But reporters had a different subject on their minds. “John Kerry is already in the race and is raising a lot of issues about the Democratic Party’s record” on matters important to white voters, one journalist told Gephardt. “What are you going to be bringing to the race that he hasn’t already been pointing out in terms of that issue?”
Gephardt replied that he wasn’t just appealing to whites, but reporters persisted. “The way some TV commentators and columnists are trying to position you right now is that you come in after Kerry’s in,” said one. “I think that’s kind of why the timeline [of your decision] is important to establish.”
Gephardt called the question silly, but his inquisitors kept going. “Where do you think your base is going to come from?” asked one. “Will it be men? Will it be the white community?” Another chimed in, “I’m having a little trouble understanding why you believe that this political dynamic between you and Kerry is a silly question. … You’re going to be vying for some of the same constituency, are you not?”
Of course, this exchange never happened. Or rather, it did, but not to Gephardt. He was announcing his candidacy in St. Louis that day. The presidential contender who endured the racial grilling at the Press Club was Carol Moseley-Braun, the former Democratic senator from Illinois. The questions she was asked are reprinted verbatim above, except that they were about blacks and women, not whites and men, and her presumed rival was the Rev. Al Sharpton. Most whites have trouble seeing why questions like these are shallow and offensive. Once the colors are reversed, the coarseness is easier for us to recognize.
There are legitimate reasons to think about the racial context of Moseley-Braun’s campaign. She’s the one who talked at length in her opening statement about blazing trails for blacks and women in politics. But the Sharpton question is the wrong way to go about it. Why does Moseley-Braun talk so much about being the first black or female this or that? Because she has little else to talk about.
In 1998, Moseley-Braun lost her Senate seat after a single term marred by a campaign-finance scandal. Most people who run for president list a few big things they accomplished in office. Moseley-Braun listed none. She talked about issues she cares about, and she pledged to replace Bush’s “saber rattling” with a woman’s “creative” touch. But being black or female isn’t a résumé, any more than being white or male is. And dismissing a military response to terror as machismo is no substitute for presenting a credible alternative.
Here’s the proper question for Moseley-Braun: What have you accomplished in office that shows how you would lead the country as president? Don’t tell us about the color of your skin. Tell us about the content of your career.