Notes On A Campaign Scandal: Reid, Edwards, And The Tarnish On 2008

"Harry Reid Racist" is the seventh most searched term on Google, thanks to a new book called Game Change. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's gossipy, behind the scenes look at the 2008 campaign is creating some political fallout.

Reid's comments are generating quite a bit of controversy, but the GOP is leading the charge, comparing Reid's comments to Trent Lott's and advising Reid to step down.

Here's what Reid said:

In their book "Game Change," Time magazine's Mark Halperin and New York magazine's John Heilemann report that Reid "was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama - a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as he later put it privately."

Was what Reid said racist? Yes. (Will someone please explain what this special Negro dialect is?) Was it shocking? No. I'm with Rikyrah of Jack and Jill Politics, when she writes:

This was an insult by Reid, but guess what, it's not an insult that any other EDUCATED BLACK PERSON hasn't heard in their lifetime.

The whole, they know you went to college and graduate/professional school, but will utter the words – to your face-

‘ you speak so well.'

You grit your teeth and maybe mumble something, but what you want to say is..

I have 2 degrees[if not more], you idiot. what do you think I had to do in order to get them? That there's a specific ‘ Black degree', where they allow you to do whatever to get a degree?

Same shit, different scale.

However, it's important to understand the difference between the two remarks. As the American Prospect's Adam Serwer breaks it down:

The GOP has spent considerable effort trying to equate Reid's remarks with those made by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2002, when Lott spoke fondly of the segregationist presidential run of Sen. Strom Thurmond. This is absurd: Lott was expressing nostalgic support for the preservation of state-sponsored apartheid, while Reid was making a raw political calculation about what role white views on race would or would not play in Obama's candidacy. While Reid's language was offensive, his comments indicate an awareness of lingering American racism. Lott's instead lamented the loss of a time when racism was enshrined in law. They aren't remotely comparable.

There's nothing partisan about racism, it's not as though Democrats or liberals are immune by definition. But what disturbs me about the Republican reaction — beyond the fact that they spent Obama's first year accusing him of instituting "reparations" for slavery and denying white men their birthright on the Supreme Court — is that it allows the GOP to take offense at the suggestion that racism is still a factor in American life while ostensibly expressing disapproval of anti-black racism. The point here is to imply that any discussion of how race or light-skinned privilege might affect one's chances at success today are out of bounds, which ultimately makes it easier for such things to persist and for legal safeguards against discrimination to be dismantled.

This does not excuse what Reid said. Not for a moment. But the context is very, very different. Ultimately, that doesn't matter - people aren't really interested in conversations on icky topics like racism and how individual biases translate into systemic problems for minorities in America. Oh no, it's all about playing the political game. As the Field Negro documents, no one is surprised at how the Sunday morning talk show circuit went:

I love Mrs. Field's home girl, Donna Brazile, but I heard her on one of the Sunday morning talk shows defending Harry and saying what a fighter he was for black folks and how he gets a pass because of his record- blah blah blah- and I wanted to throw up my eggs. Donna, with all due respect, that's bullshit! The only reason you were defending him is because he is a dumbocrat just like you. Had he been a repukelican your ass would have been all over him, and rightfully so. So let's not pretend that it's only old white repukelican men who are capable of ignorantly stereotyping people. The dumbocrats can hold their own in this department with the best of them, so spare me.

Hip Hop Mike [referring to Michael Steele, GOP Chairman], I saw you doing your usual jig this morning as well. Stop it! Yes there is a double standard, but you are in no position to talk. Had this been a a repukelican who made this statement your ass would have been jigging to his defense quicker than a conservative walking past a civil rights convention. Sorry Mike, your house has way too much glass in it for you to be in a television studio throwing stones.

Reid wasn't the only political figure to get smeared in Game Change. New York magazine printed a ten page excerpt from the book, aiming to knock the halo off of Elizabeth Edwards' image, knee John Edwards in the balls, and make Rielle Hunter look like a ego (among other things) -stoking opportunist.

Titled "Saint Elizabeth and The Ego Monster," Halperin and Heilemann paint a familiar picture: the great man of vision with a bit too much hubris, and the two women who would do him in. First, though, they tackle Elizabeth Edwards:

Even before the cancer, she was among her husband's greatest political assets. In one focus group conducted by Hickman in Edwards's Senate race, voters trashed him as a pretty-boy shyster-until they saw pictures of Elizabeth, four years his senior. "I like that he's got a fat wife," one woman said. "I thought he'd be married to a Barbie or a cheerleader."

The Edwardses' eldest son, Wade, had been killed in a car crash in 1996; for a long time, Elizabeth went to his grave site every day and read softly to the tombstone. The combination of her suffering, resilience, and imperfections made her a poignant figure. But it was the illness that elevated Elizabeth to a higher plane. She confronted her treatment with bracing courage and wry humor, emerging as one of the most outspoken and widely admired cancer survivors in history.

No one in the Edwardses' political circle felt anything less than complete sympathy for Elizabeth's plight. And yet the romance between her and the electorate struck them as ironic nonetheless-because their own relationships with her were so unpleasant that they felt like battered spouses. The nearly universal assessment among them was that there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing.

With her husband, she could be intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive. At times subtly, at times blatantly, she was forever letting John know that she regarded him as her intellectual inferior. She called her spouse a "hick" in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks. One time, when a friend asked if John had read a certain book, Elizabeth burst out laughing. "Oh, he doesn't read books," she said. "I'm the one who reads books."

During the 2004 race, Elizabeth badgered and berated John's advisers around the clock. She called Nick Baldick, his campaign manager, an idiot. She accused David Axelrod, his (and later Obama's) media consultant, of lying to her and insisted that he be stripped of the responsibility for making the campaign's TV ads. She would stay up late scouring the Web, pulling down negative stories and blog items about her husband, forwarding them with vicious messages to the communications team. She routinely unleashed profanity-laced tirades on conference calls. "Why the fuck do you think I'd want to go sit outside a Wal-Mart and hand out leaflets?" she snarled at the schedulers.

So now that Edwards is established as the castrating harpy in this tale of woe, the authors introduce Rielle Hunter - the loopy, counterbalance to Elizabeth who entranced John Edwards and apparently gave him everything he was looking for:

There was nothing legit, however, about Hunter's behavior. It was freaky, wildly inappropriate, and all too visible. She flirted outlandishly with every man she met. She spouted New Age babble, rambled on about astrology and reincarnation, and announced to people she had just met, "I'm a witch." But mostly, she fixated on Edwards. She told him that he had "the power to change the world," that "the people will follow you." She told him that he could be as great a leader as Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. She told him, "You're so real. You just need to get your staff out of your way." She reinforced everything he already believed, told him everything he wanted to hear.

Edwards swooned. He spent hours talking to Hunter, listening patiently to her ideas about the state of American democracy and advice on media strategy. (She had intuitions about Chris Matthews.) He ate every meal with her, sat next to her on the plane and in the car, offered to wheel her bags through airports. He told the staff to treat her like a principal. He behaved as if she were a combination of an adviser and a spouse. If Baldick suggested that she not take a trip, Edwards would resist. When Hunter wanted access to some event that Brumberger thought she shouldn't attend, Edwards would order, "Let her do it." Or plead, "C'mon, just let her do it." Or whisper conspiratorially, "Just let her do it this one time."

Now Edwards comes into to play, the man so convinced of his own impenetrability that he couldn't hear the train whistling or feel the ropes tying him to the train tracks. The article digs deeply into the speedy demise of the Edwards campaign, as well as his political career.

Clearly, Heilemann and Halperin intended to make a mark with their book, but the this can only be the beginning of the scandals. The book doesn't even officially release until January 13th - and we haven't even gotten to the McCain/Palin campaign yet.

Trending Topic: 'Harry Reid Racist' [Politico]
Game Change: Obama And The Clintons, McCain And Palin, And The Race Of A Lifetime (Hardcover)
Republicans Cite Lott In Calling For Reid To Quit [AP]
Senator Harry Reid's ‘ Negro' Problem [Jack and Jill Politics]
The Reid Flap. [The American Prospect]
The Truth About Harry. [The Field Negro]
Saint Elizabeth And The Ego Monster [NY Magazine]