Former President Jimmy Carter is causing quite the stir by asserting that the most vicious of the vitriol directed at President Obama flows from racism.
"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American," Carter said in part of an interview aired Tuesday night on NBC's "Nightly News."
"I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that shared the South's attitude toward minority groups, at that time particularly African-Americans, that racism in connection still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country," added Carter, a Democratic former governor of Georgia, who has earned praise for his humanitarian efforts since leaving office, but has also drawn criticism for what some consider anti-American comments.
"It's an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply."
UPDATE: The White House, however, disagreed with Carter.
"The president does not believe that -- that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin," presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters today. "We understand that people have disagreements with some of the decisions that we've made and some of the extraordinary actions that had to be undertaken by this administration and previous administrations to stabilize our financial system, to ensure viability of our domestic auto industry.
"I don't think that, you know, the president does not believe that it's based on the color of his skin," Gibbs said during his daily press briefing.
Earlier today, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, the party's first black leader, hit back at Carter today.
"President Carter is flat out wrong. This isnít about race. It is about policy," Steele said in a statement, first given to Politico.
"This is a pathetic distraction by Democrats to shift attention away from the president's wildly unpopular government-run health care plan that the American people simply oppose. Injecting race into the debate over critical issues facing American families doesnít create jobs, reform our health care system or reduce the growing deficit. It only divides Americans rather than uniting us to find solutions to challenges facing our nation," Steele added.
"Characterizing Americansí disapproval of President Obamaís policies as being based on race is an outrage and a troubling sign about the lengths Democrats will go to disparage all who disagree with them. Playing the race card shows that Democrats are willing to deal from the bottom of the deck. Our political system has no place for this type of rhetoric. As the leader of the Democratic Party President Obama should flatly reject efforts by those in his Party, including Jimmy Carter and Tim Kaine, to inject race into our civil discourse in ways that divide, not unite, Americans."
Others who agree with Carter point to racially charged, anti-Obama signs sprinkled in protest crowds at congressional town halls on health care last month and at the "Tea Party" anti-tax rally that drew tens of thousands to Washington on Saturday.
Organizers say any racism is a fringe element and does not represent the "Tea Party" movement.
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who pushed for the resolution of disapproval Tuesday against Representative Joe Wilson, have suggested that disrespect to a black president was partly behind the South Carolina Republican's outburst of "You lie!" against Obama last week.
"I guess we'll probably have folks putting on white hoods again," Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, told reporters before Tuesday's 240-179 mostly party line vote to admonish Wilson. "That's the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked."
UPDATE: Steele reinforced his critique of Carter and elaborated on it this afternoon.
Asked on CNN's "Situation Room" what he would tell Carter, Steele said, "Well, I'll make it as short and sweet and simple as possible -- you're just dead wrong....When you go down this road and you start just willy-nilly, as I believe President Carter has, throwing race out there, you diminish real instances of racism that needs to be addressed."
"It is this wonderful ivory tower liberal elite who think they know racism better than I do, who think they understand what it's like better than I do," he added.
Asked about Congressman Johnson's argument about Wilson, Steele retorted, "I think it's an ignorant statement, I'm sorry. It is just beyond my comprehension that you jump from a member of Congress who blurted out in an emotional response to something the president said to all of a sudden people are going to be running through the neighborhoods wearing white sheets and hoods. I'm sorry. It just, to me, it's beyond anyone's comprehension that you can make that leap. But that again makes my point."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.