It has been much too easy for Bill Bradley to fake to his left and for Al Gore to fake the funk, with George W. Bush and John McCain impaling themselves on Confederate flagpoles and Bush plunging the spear even deeper into himself by speaking at a university that bans interracial dating, gay and lesbian alumni, and has a history of anti-Catholicism. The double suicide of Bush and McCain has been so spectacular that the winner of the Republican primaries will be on the death row of race, stained by the appeal to voters whose taste in heroes runs more to Bull Connor, George Wallace, and Robert E. Lee than Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr.
The suicide came so early that for weeks already, Bradley and Gore have hammered Bush and McCain with righteous indignation. Bradley said: ''That flag shows the true colors of the Republicans who want to be president. Both George Bush and John McCain have embraced the narrow political expediency of the Republican Party. It's an expediency that ignores a hateful and shameful past in an effort to bottom-fish for votes from the most right-wing element of the Republican Party.''
Gore said, ''Neither of the two Republican candidates had the guts to take on the bigotry and call for the Confederate flag to be removed from the state capitol dome.... Why in the world would John McCain and George W. Bush be so scared?''
Now is the time to ask Bradley and Gore why they lack the guts to stop supporting bigotry themselves. During the primaries, Bradley and Gore have appeared on the Don Imus radio show. Imus is one of the men who gave us the depraved format of shock talk. Bradley has appeared on Imus regularly for years since his days in the Senate.
Imus may be past his peak in popularity, but his show is on 92 stations and still reaches enough white males to be a potent magnet for politicians. The magnet is so strong they forget that throughout the 1990s, Imus became known for racist humor and for creating an atmosphere where guests felt comfortable to test drive their meaner spirits.
Imus and former US senator Alfonse D'Amato mocked Lance Ito, the judge in the O.J. Simpson trial, with a fake Asian accent even though Ito himself spoke perfect English. Imus and Donald Trump have mocked American Indian customs. The show had obscene songs about Hillary Rodham Clinton going to ''state dinners with her lesbian friends.'' Senator John Kerry once joked on Imus about former governor William Weld, ''this guy takes more vacations than the people on welfare.''
Imus said of an African-American New York Times White House reporter: ''Isn't the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.'' Imus called a top Washington Post media critic a ''boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy.''
Several African-American women, such as Oprah Winfrey, Aretha Franklin, and Serena and Venus Williams, have been denigrated as whores for their body dimensions. A Mexican tennis player was called a ''little dishwasher,'' the friendship between entertainer Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson was declared a case of ''jungle retardation,'' and black people from the Knicks to diseased Africans are joked about as gorillas and monkey eaters.
In 1998 on CBS's ''60 Minutes,'' Mike Wallace asked Imus if the specific purpose of sidekick Bernard McGuirk was to do ''nigger jokes.'' When Imus denied using the word, his own producer, Tom Addison, said, ''I recall you using that word.''
Imus said, ''Oh, OK. Well, then I used that word.... I don't apologize for - for offending people, you know? And I know it's not politically, not politically correct, and I don't care.''
Bradley has so far ignored this bigotry, joking in January on Imus that he was working hard ''to live up to your expectations.'' Gore, after talking to Imus about feminist adviser Naomi Wolf, said, ''Incidentally Don, I need an adviser to tell me how to communicate to old men, and I was wondering if you might have some free time.''
So who is bottom fishing now, bantering with a man who scripts in ''nigger jokes?'' What are the true colors of candidates who show black folks the good foot at the Apollo, then cut it up with white folks who kick black people in the spine with stereotypes and slurs?
Bush and McCain may already be on the death row of race, but we do not yet know the true colors of Bradley and Gore. A fungus left unattended will turn a good foot into one of undesirable funk. Without a direct challenge to Imus or a refusal to go on his show, Bradley and Gore will go from men who are agile, swift, and in tune on race to fakes who found their own way to impale themselves.
For Republicans the sharp stake was a flagpole. For the Democrats, unless they show some guts, it might be a microphone.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe columnist.
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