Ferraro’s Frustration

The 2008 presidential election has perfected a new category of gaffe: the otherwise sane, rational person saying something utterly irresponsible. Bill Sheehan started it with his coy drug reference, followed by Bill Clinton’s comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson, followed most recently by Samantha Power’s ” monster ” comment.

Welcome to the club, Geraldine Ferraro. Her inflammatory words , spoken to the Daily Breeze last week, were mostly lost in the frenzy over Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s dalliances yesterday. Here they are, ripped from context: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

The Clinton campaign’s response was terse : “We disagree with her,” said communications director Howard Wolfson.

Blog reaction has been combustible—how dare she suggest Obama is “lucky” to be black?—but focuses more on demonizing the former vice-presidential nominee than getting at where her words come from. But Ferraro bookends her unfortunate comments with two sound observations: 1) The media seem to dislike Clinton largely because of her gender, and 2) Obama is foolish to suggest that he will end partisanship. “Dear God!” she says. “Anyone that has worked in the Congress knows that for over 200 years this country has had partisanship—that’s the way our country is.” Good points, certainly. But she could have chosen a better segue.

Her remarks show frustration that a tough, hard-working, hyper-competent woman like Clinton can still be swept aside by a force of nature. Ferraro is correct that Obama’s race has a lot to do with it (just as Clinton’s gender has a lot to do with her appeal to women). But of course it’s more than that. Gail Collins put it best in a column she wrote before the Ohio primary. If Hillary doesn’t pull through, Collins wrote, she should understand this: “She’s done fine. And she’d probably have won the nomination walking away if Barack hadn’t picked this moment to mutate into BARACK! You do your best, and if things don’t work out, it just wasn’t your time. Life isn’t always fair.”

It’s this realization that has turned surrogates on both sides into gaffe machines. It’s also why staff members of both candidates may have trouble working together in the general. Clinton’s people understand they’re up against a phenomenon; Obama’s people feel like they’re on the right side of history. But I wouldn’t chalk Ferraro’s comments up to racism or bigotry. Rather, they’re the product of high tensions mixed with identity politics in a campaign that is driving everyone a little crazy.