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Peter S. Canellos | National Perspective

Obama-Clinton contest revealed limits of racism, sexism

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / July 1, 2008

WASHINGTON - To hear some of Hillary Clinton's disappointed supporters tell it, half of America just told her to "Iron my shirt."

In fact, two guys did, at a Clinton rally in New Hampshire in January, in what seems to have been a prank to draw attention to their radio show.

This is not to say that sexist attitudes weren't part of the 2008 primary campaign, or that racism wasn't, either. But when the history of the great first black/first woman primary is written, it will probably record that the Clinton-Barack Obama race was far from the worst moment in American race and gender relations. In fact, it revealed more about the limits of racism and sexism than about their omnipresent force.

There wasn't anything like the sour aftertaste that followed Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential candidacy in 1984, when many Americans probably weren't ready for a female leader, nor were there any flagrant claims of a "high-tech lynching of an uppity black," as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said of his confirmation hearings in 1991.

The reality of the 2008 Democratic primary is probably more like the two combatants presented it at last Friday's post-mortem in Unity, N.H.: a path-breaking effort by Clinton and Obama that showed how tens of millions of Americans could rally around candidates who aren't white males.

"We shattered barriers that stood firm since the founding of this nation - barriers that our supporters perhaps at the beginning didn't believe could be shattered," Obama said, as Clinton nodded in agreement. "I don't pretend that one election could erase all the past biases and outdated attitudes that we're struggling to overcome . . . but I also know that while this campaign has shown us how far we have to go, it's also proven the progress that we've made."

This positive spin is more easily digested by Obama's supporters, who saw their candidate claim the nomination. For supporters of Clinton, who lost the closest nominating fight since the end of the smoke-filled rooms, any factor can be viewed as decisive. And so it is with sexism.

YouTube is aflame with compilations of TV commentators remarking on Clinton's looks, voice, or personal life, starting with MSNBC's Chris Matthews ("The reason she's a US senator . . . is her husband messed around."). There are also groups calling attention to the negative ways strong women are portrayed in public life.

Two weeks ago, John McCain's campaign dispatched Carly Fiorina, the deposed Hewlett-Packard CEO, to attest to the unfair attacks levied on powerful women. "Women in positions of authority, particularly bold women who are trying to change things, are . . . caricatured differently, commented upon differently, and held to different standards," she declared.

Few would dispute Fiorina's assertions; nor would anyone dispute that black candidates, too, are caricatured differently. Still, much of presidential politics is a matter of addressing - and altering - perceptions that arise out of stereotypes. With so many voters making decisions based on casual impressions, usually culled from TV, almost all campaigns try to leverage stereotypes to their advantage.

While Clinton and Obama were contending with much larger, more freighted stereotypes, their challenges were not completely different from those faced by, say, Mitt Romney in addressing his Mormonism or John F. Kerry trying to counter perceptions of Northeastern elitism.

And even as Clinton and Obama struggled at times to persuade voters to look beyond gender and race, they were able at other times to make their identity work to their advantage.

Clinton quickly turned on the "Iron my shirt" hecklers to remind women that she was "trying to break the highest and hardest glass ceiling," a call to arms that helped bring about her historic comeback in the New Hampshire primary.

And the Obama team succeeded in using his race as a factor in establishing the idea that Democratic superdelegates should not defy the will of the voters; some of Obama's leading black supporters recounted the long, sad history of blacks being denied their due at the ballot box.

Had the roles been reversed, and if the supposedly Machiavellian Clinton had clung to a narrow lead in elected delegates while Obama roared ever closer down the stretch, commentators would have been certain to remind her that superdelegates can vote however they please. A former president and his wife can't mold the rules to suit their purposes.

It surely wasn't easy to have such a fierce competiton between candidates aspiring to be the first black or first woman president, but Obama and Clinton handled it pretty well.

So did the American people.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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