“It’s going to be ethnic politics as usual,” said Al Sharpton during a commercial break from his radio show on Tuesday afternoon, a few minutes before Bill Clinton called in to defend his wife’s campaign, once again, against allegations of racial insensitivity. “The beyond-racial candidates are having the biggest racial attack I’ve seen in a long time.”
“All of a sudden,” Mr. Sharpton added, “we are back in The Bonfire of the Vanities, with a new cast and the same old script.”
Mr. Sharpton was speaking just as the Obama and Clinton campaigns had declared an official halt to an increasingly perilous exchange about race. At issue were Mrs. Clinton’s remarks pointing out that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. push for civil rights reform in America were translated into actual law by Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature; Bill Clinton’s use of the words “fairy tale” to explain Mr. Obama’s record on the war in Iraq; and remarks from Clinton surrogates evoking Mr. Obama’s history with drugs.
The result, helped along by a press corps in search of a conflict narrative, was that the story of a race between the first African-American candidate with a real shot at the White House and the wife of the man Toni Morrison referred to as the “first black president” hinged, however briefly, on questions of racial insensitivity. Even after the tension abated, Mr. Sharpton said, enough damage had been done to ensure, at the very least, that the New York primary was going to take place in the context of a “racial divide.”
Not for the first time, one of the most memorable responses to the situation came from the dean of New York’s Congressional delegation—a Friend of Hillary who claims credit for getting Mrs. Clinton to run for Senate here in the first place—Charles Rangel.
“How race got into this thing is because Obama said ‘race,’” said Mr. Rangel, in a Jan. 14 interview with NY1. He added, “But for him to suggest that Dr. King could have signed that act is absolutely stupid.”
In an interview with The Observer on Jan. 15—a day after the exchange of conciliatory campaign statements billed in the media as a “truce”—Mr. Rangel toned down his criticism, but maintained that the Obama campaign had overreached in its characterization of Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.
“She is no President Johnson and he is not Dr. Martin Luther King,” Mr. Rangel said. “So I don’t see what she was trying to say, but the statement itself was not certainly a statement that should baffle anyone.”
“It could connote just misspeaking,” he added. “But it cannot be stretched to a question of race by any stretch of the imagination.”
Mr. Rangel, who was about to head to South Carolina to campaign for Mrs. Clinton ahead of the Jan. 26 primary, expressed optimism that the candidates had successfully quelled the racial narrative.
“Both of them owe it to the Democratic Party and the country to make sure the press doesn’t allow it to grow,” Mr. Rangel said.
Certainly, race suddenly became the dominant theme of campaign coverage after Mrs. Clinton’s surprise win in New Hampshire. (Some headlines in the Jan. 15 New York Times: “In South Carolina, a Bid for Black Women’s Votes”; “Clinton and Obama Call for Truce Over Dr. King Dispute”; “In Obama’s Pursuit of Latinos, Race Plays Role.”)
But following the campaign’s lead, Mrs. Clinton’s top black supporters in New York suggested that whatever racial tensions existed between the candidates would have a minimal impact in her home-state primary.
“Each part of the country is different,” said Bill Thompson, the city comptroller and a likely candidate for New York mayor. “The situation between African-Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles is a really bad one. At the same time, it is not in New York. It happens to be a good one and people work together. If you look at elections in 2001 and 2005, [Hispanic mayoral candidate] Freddy Ferrer received strong support from the African-American community.”
When asked if that scenario did not bode well for Mr. Obama’s chances to win a majority of black and Latino support in New York, Mr. Thompson said, “In a different situation it might have, but the thing is in New York, African-Americans and Latinos know Hillary best. So it is definitely going to be an uphill climb for him in New York City and New York State.”