Commentary Magazine


Why Does Obama Get to Absolve Reid?

Harry Reid’s egregiously inappropriate comment from the  2008 campaign that Obama is ”a  light-skinned” African-American who “lacked a Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one” is causing quite a stir. But let’s be clear: had any Republican said it, he or she would be chased from office by Monday. But Harry Reid is no Trent Lott and the standards are different for Democrats. (John McCormack points out that even Obama had a different standard in 2002.) In this case, Obama is trying to snuff out the controversy, declaring:

Harry Reid called me today and apologized for an unfortunate comment reported today. I accepted Harry’s apology without question because I’ve known him for years, I’ve seen the passionate leadership he’s shown on issues of social justice and I know what’s in his heart. As far as I am concerned, the book is closed.

Why does Obama decide when the “book is closed”? This was not a personal insult limited to Obama only. Reid’s comment was a peek into the views, prejudices, and attitudes of the Senate Majority leader. Reid is engaging in what’s textbook-definition of racism: evaluating someone on the basis of skin color. It isn’t up to Obama to wipe the slate clean. He is, after all, only the president, not the supreme court of racial justice. He might be the nation’s most prominent African American but he is not the spokesperson of an entire race, nor the nation’s designated spokesperson on racial matters.

When Obama tried be the nation’s official race policeman in Gatesgate, he got himself in a heap of trouble – jumping to conclusions without facts and seeming to condescend his fellow citizens. The country cringed, wondering why the president presumed to lecture us on race. In the case of Reid, Obama has every right to accept the apology himself. He isn’t, however, authorized to give Reid a get-out-of-hot-water card. That judgment — whether Reid, for expressing views most Americans find abhorrent, should suffer political consequences — belongs to voters and to his fellow senators. Reid might well get away with it, given the double standard on race for politicians of the two major parties. (Or it might be a handy excuse to show Reid the door.) But it’s not Obama’s call.