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US election diary: A nasty week
Scandal in New York and how race has dominated the Democratic contest.
Last Modified: 20 Jun 2008 15:10 GMT

This week saw an ugly racial spat in the Democratic contest [GALLO/GETTY] 

It has been a nasty week in US politics.

Let us start with the sad and disturbing affair of Eliot Spitzer.

Spitzer is (or was) the governor of New York whose reported dalliance with (incredibly) high-priced prostitutes led to a spectacular downfall.

He was allegedly caught by federal agents who began tapping his phones after being tipped off to suspicious financial transactions by his bank.

Spitzer resigned on Wednesday and may face prosecution on a variety of federal felony charges. He could also very well wind up doing jail time.

The American media has been absolutely transfixed by the case all week and there has been plenty of sniggering double-entendre cleverness by cable news commentators and late night comedians.

A sad affair

Previous entries


Part 1: Obama factor
Part 2: It's personal
Part 3: Overload

Spitzer made his mark as a hard-driving prosecutor who specialised in exposing and punishing Wall Street thieves, swindlers and cheats - the typical inhabitants of American executive business suites.

Now the CEO con-men colleagues of those who Spitzer prosecuted are having themselves a good belly-laugh over Spitzer's fate in a veritable fiesta of schadenfreude.

Whatever furtive psycho-sexual compulsions led Spitzer to fling his career into the gutter for the sake of some illicit thrills, at least he did the public a great deal of good by bringing those corporate criminals to account.

But as I said, it is a sad affair, and the tortured look on Silda Wall Spitzer's face as she stood beside her husband during his resignation announcement was truly horrifying.

'Racial undercurrents'

By contrast, the presidential race this week has been preoccupied not matters of sex, but of race.

In focus

In-depth coverage of the
US presidential election
Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman ever to run as the vice presidential candidate of a major party and a member of Hillary Clinton's fundraising committee was forced to resign after saying that Barack Obama owes his rapid rise in politics simply to the fact that he is an African-American.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," Ferraro told a California newspaper.

"And if he was a woman he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is."

Obama, who declined to call Ferraro's comments racist, responded by saying that most people would not think it was necessarily an advantage, when you are running for president, to be a black man.

He also said it would be naive to think that the racial undercurrents in American society could be brushed aside in a single presidential campaign.

Lingering attitudes

Bill Clinton, centre, caused controversy with
remarks about Obama's victories [Reuters]
While Ferraro was defiantly unapologetic about her remarks, she eventually stepped down, but her comments received only a tepid condemnation from Hillary Clinton.

Given the lingering attitudes of some American voters, its quite possible that raising Obama's race in a disparaging way will be of considerable benefit to Clinton.

After all, it is not the first time prominent Clinton backers sought to remind voters of Obama's heritage with racially tinged remarks.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell opined that some voters in his state would have a problem voting for a black man and Bill Clinton, the former president and husband of Hillary, tried to downplay some of Obama's victories by attributing them to African-American voter turnout.

But those on-the-record comments are not nearly as disturbing as some of the garbage floating around on the internet.

Chain emails of as-yet unknown origin are circulating saying that Obama, who is a practicing Christian and regular churchgoer, is in fact part of a Muslim extremist plot to conquer the United States.

Here is a sample of one of those emails, taken from the myth-debunking website urbanlegends.com:

"Since it is politically expedient to be a CHRISTIAN when seeking Major public office in the United States, Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.

"The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level - through the President of the United States, one of their own!

"ALSO, keep in mind that when he was sworn into office - he DID NOT use the Holy Bible, but instead the Kuran (Their equivalency to our Bible, but very different beliefs)."

"Please forward to everyone you know. Would you want this man leading our country ... NOT ME!!!"

This misspelled, ungrammatical diatribe would appear to be merely the work of some hate-filled conspiracy theorist, and it probably is.

Unpleasant sentiments?

Obama is a Muslim, and we are at war with Muslims, so I don't think we should have a Muslim for a president

I am certainly not saying it was dreamed up by the Clinton campaign. Yet, it is proving useful for Clinton.

In Texas last week we personally encountered people who had bought the Obama-is-a-Muslim line lock, stock and barrel.

One young man interviewed in Austin said: "Obama is a Muslim, and we are at war with Muslims, so I don't think we should have a Muslim for a president."

Other people in both Texas and Ohio said they had heard - and believed - that Obama turns his back on the American flag, refuses to cite the pledge of allegiance, and so on.

That sentiment translates into votes for Clinton. 

When asked on a major television news show just before the Ohio and Texas primaries what she thought of those false emails, Clinton gave a carefully hedged answer, saying "No, there is nothing to base that on. As far as I know."

That little qualifier at the end is just enough to keep the rumours alive.

Obama also faces smears and innuendo from the Republican side, with right-wing pundits and radio hosts emphasising the candidates middle name, Hussein, as if to link him to Saddam Hussein in the minds of the ignorant.

McCain's bitter experience

McCain, left, suffered from a smear campaign
during his battle with Bush in 2004 [Reuters]
To his credit, John McCain has firmly rejected, denounced and repudiated all such efforts by his followers. 

And McCain should know what its like to be the target of a smear campaign.

In 2000, when McCain was running for the Republican nomination for the first time, political operatives started a word-of-mouth campaign asserting that McCain had a child from an extramarital affair with a black woman.

In fact, McCain and his wife have an adopted daughter who was born in Bangladesh, and has a dark complexion.

Nevertheless, the gossip helped cost McCain the primary, and as a result, he lost the nomination as well. 

No-one has ever definitively gotten to the bottom of who started the rumours, or who was behind them.

But there is no doubt at all about who benefited from that exercise in dirty politics; the man who beat McCain and went on to become president - George Bush.

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