It is fair to make presidential candidates squirm about dubious associations in debates. But the way ABC News moderators stretched Barack Obama on the rack for his ties to Rev. Jeremiah Wright was curious. For nearly three decades, such moderators of debates and their journalist panels have failed to probe similar ties of other candidates.
In some 1,600 words of transcript, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos tried to eviscerate Obama in Philadelphia on Wednesday, weeks after the candidate's address on race and his former minister. Rival Hillary Clinton tried to detonate a scare-the-white-folks F-bomb, saying, "it wasn't only the specific remarks, but some of the relationships with Rev. Farrakhan . . ."
She knew she need not elaborate. She knew she would not face in-kind grilling, as Stephanopoulos was once a senior policy adviser to Clinton's husband.
By the way, just how did the wife of "America's First Black President" lose almost the entire African-American vote during the primaries?
Obama was arguably asked more about Wright in one night than what has been asked for the last 28 years in presidential debates of all white candidates about their dubious associations with racist elements of religion and society.
The media exploded over Wright calling us the "US of KKK-A." Ronald Reagan became president despite kissing the ring of the KKK, starting his 1980 general election campaign by proclaiming "states' rights" in Mississippi, near where three civil rights workers were murdered. "States' rights" was code for segregation. Reagan was not asked about "states rights" in his debate with President Jimmy Carter.
Reagan's first term was marked by a failed bid to grant tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University, the Bible school which, among several un-American lapses, banned black students until the 1970s and interracial dating until 2000.
Reagan was not asked about Bob Jones in the 1984 debates. Nor was Reagan asked about his coddling of apartheid South Africa. In the 1996 debates, Bob Dole was not asked about his visit to Bob Jones University.
The junior George Bush did face debate questions about Bob Jones in the 2000 Republican primaries after speaking at the school. Bush said he was against the ban on interracial dating, but rationalized, "I followed a long tradition of both Republican and Democratic candidates that went to lay out their vision. Ronald Reagan went to Bob Jones, my dad went to Bob Jones, Bob Dole . . . I talked about bringing people together so America can achieve its greatness."
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Then-rival John McCain, today the presumptive Republican nominee, declared in 2000, "We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones."
But McCain claimed that if had been invited to Bob Jones, "I would have gone . . . and I would have said, 'Look, what you're doing in this ban on interracial dating is stupid, it's idiotic and it is incredibly cruel to many people.' "
That put the media to sleep. Bob Jones was not brought up in Bush's general election debates. The long tradition continued in the 2008 Republican primaries with Mitt Romney being "happy" with his endorsement from Bob Jones III.
Romney said he and Jones "love this country." No such conjunctive privilege is extended to the biracial Obama. In Philadelphia, Clinton repeated, "I would not have stayed in the church."
Obama instead was administered a personal loyalty and national patriotism test about his minister, a former Marine. Stephanopoulos asked Obama, "Do you think Rev. Wright loves America as much as you do?"
From Reagan to Romney, Republicans can to this day go to Bob Jones to "bring people together."
Obama instead is asked by the moderators to hand them either his former minister's head, or his own. Does your minister love America as much as you?
Answer no, he disowns the man who officiated his marriage and baptized his children, diminishing the very complexities he spoke about in his speech on race. . Answer yes, Obama destroys his campaign.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company