You can almost almost sympathize with Bill Clinton. But only almost. It's not easy to run against the man with a halo. The Clintons bought the grief that threatens to derail their train, and paid for it with arrogance and self-importance.
Only the Clintons would imagine they could play the race card in modern America, and their only defense is that the sin is not contempt for their presumed inferiors. They're contemptuous of everybody.
Promising to rise above race is an important part of the considerable charm of the campaign of Barack Obama, one of the most attractive candidates, black or white, we've seen. But enchanting charm and hypnotic bonhomie may not be quite enough to survive the potholes in the path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Shelby Steele, the author of widely acclaimed books on race in America, most prominently "The Content of Our Character," was in Washington yesterday to talk about his latest, "A Bound Man." The subtitle is equally provocative: "Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win." He offers a rue smile over lunch: "I'm not quite as sure about the subtitle as I was." He wrote that last summer when he turned in the manuscript.
Fresh national polls, out just yesterday, encourage second thoughts. Gallup puts Hillary ahead by 43 percent to 39 percent, the narrowest margin since January of last year. Rasmussen puts the margin at 42 percent to 35 percent. Mr. Obama is up 11 points over the last week. Something, as well as somebody, is clearly gaining on the lady who only yesterday was the inevitable president.
Mr. Steele still thinks the odds, though shorter, are against the young senator from Illinois, and the threat is not from Bill or Hillary but from the man Barack Obama himself might yet turn out to be. He thinks the senator wants to be a unifier but he's essentially a racial phenomenon. "We still don't know what his voice is, a candidate stunning for a lack of specifics, convictions, principles and ideas. The question is whether he can survive becoming visible."
What he has going for him is white guilt, the desperation of white America to avoid the stigma of racism and redeem itself for the centuries of racial abuse. Merely to be accused of racism, even falsely, is proof enough in a nation become puritanical on race.
Mr. Steele divides blacks into two categories, the "challengers" and the "bargainers." These are the "two great masks" blacks wear in seeking success and power in mainstream America. Bargainers are willing to let whites "off the hook" for abuses, perceived or real, of past or present. Challengers are not. Challengers presume whites are racists, but offer absolution if they get something in return, such as, for example, racial preferences. Sometimes bargainers challenge, and challengers bargain, but "people seem naturally inclined to one or the other." The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are challengers; Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfrey are examples of bargainers attractive to white America.
If this seems complicated, it gets more so for Barack Obama. The whites drawn to the senator see him as neither angry nor resentful. Because his natural base is among whites, blacks are suspicious and often ambivalent but willing to go along if Mr. Obama gets enough in the bargain. It's a risky bargain: If he says or does something to lose the white vote the blacks will desert him as an incompetent bargainer.
Speech this plain are words that only a black man, and particularly a black man of Shelby Steele's stature, could say in the public square. The act of running against Mr. Obama is a sprint through a minefield; a white opponent must be exceedingly wary with what he says and how he says it. Running against "the man with a halo," particularly a halo bestowed by whites, is more difficult than running against a woman in an era of still potent feminism.
No one should understand this better, or even as well, as Bill Clinton, who has the shrewdest political instincts in town. His frustration is understandable, but indulging in a temper tantrum when the stakes are so high is inexplicable. The penalties are severe.