Mike Kinsley famously defined a "gaffe" in Washington as an accidental, inadvertent moment of truth-telling. Well by that standard Geraldine Ferraro, Mondale's 1984 Vice-Presidential pick who is supporting Hillary Clinton, has committed a gaffe. She seems to have caused a minor-rumpus with these comments:
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position... And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
What? So being black, with the middle name Hussein and a Muslim-born father is just a walk in the park compared to the sexism faced by a white, upper-middle-class woman who just happens to be married to a former president and can claim every accomplishment of his as her own (apart from the inconvenient ones)? The bitter – perhaps racist - comments got lost in the media avalanche following Eliot Spitzer's shenanigans but they may well have legs tomorrow.
Er, Obama's "very lucky to be" a black man? All you black guys out there take note – you're so fortunate to be able to have an inbuilt advantage that'll guarantee you kid-glove treatment throughout your life.
Well, hang on a minute. Ferraro's comments may have been unwise but that doesn't make them untrue. You doubt this? ask ourself if you think of any other circumstances in which a first-term Senator would have been in a position to challenge Hillary Clinton seriously, let alone defeat her. Or, to put it another way, look at the number of white men she defeated. Then recall how easily she defeated them.
A white Obama might be as intelligent and as eloquent as the real BHO is, but he'd be deprived of Obama's greatest advantage: his being black trumps her being female. If Obama were white, don't you think the Clinton campaign would have talked even more than it has about the need to "smash" the "highest, toughest glass ceiling of them all?" As a young, white first-term Senator there'd have been a sense that his candidacy was unduly presumptious (a consideration that did some damage John Edwards in 2004) - what, after all, would be the rush? Better, in those circumstances, to make history by nominating and then electing the woman. (We might also note that, besides being a buffoon, Bill Richardson's status as a potential "first Latino" president never gained any traction since it was crowded out by the history-making potential of the Clinton and Obama candidacies).
Obama's candidacy also destroyed much of Clinton's attractiveness. Yes, selecting a woman would be a historic moment. But selecting a black politician would be even more significant. The idea of a symbolic reconciliation or of some imagined historical make-up call acknowledging America's original sin even as it sought to move, at long last, beyond it etc etc... all that makes choosing a woman pretty small beer. For the Clinton's it must have been as though they went all-in pre-flop holding a pair of Kings only to find a call from the last player to speak who, shockingly, happened to be holding Aces. (Of course, the analogy breaks down a little in as much as Hillary was still the front-runner. But in the Sex vs Colour stakes, she trails.)
A black man was the only candidate who could make a stronger argument for "Change" - and for embodying change - than Clinton. (A black woman would, I think, have been seen as just, well, going too far). I think it's reasonable to suppose that a white Obama would not have been able to make a case for "the fierce urgency of now" but, as we've seen, the real Obama can and has.
Think too of the voters from whom Obama has won support. His initial support came from highly educated and wealthy Democrats and from younger voters in the 18-30 age group. Suffice it to say that these are the two demographics most likely to be most acutely aware of the symbolic power and appeal of Obama's candidacy. The kids these days, after all, are raised and taught in school that Malcolm Luther King and Rosa Parks are the greatest Americans of all, while upscale voters are more likely than other liberals to be attracted to the idea of a black man as President.
Of course Obama has expanded his electoral appeal beyond these voters, but that's where he began and where, I think, he had certain advantages that would have been denied a white, first-term Senator. No-one can feel good about themselves for supporting a wealthy white man, but backing the man who might be the first black President allows folk to praise themselves for their own broad-minded generosity and sense of historical significance.
There are, to be sure, plenty of less cynical reasons to support Obama but Obama's been more successful than Jesse Jackson at least partly because a) he doesn't terrify upscale whites and b) they can imagine having dinner with him. It may sound cynical to say this, but Obama's black enough to be different and significant while also being white enough to be reassuring. For all that the United States has, as they say, "moved on", this is still part of the reason for Obama's rise. He offers just the right blend of exoticism and familiarity.
In other words, Geraldine Ferraro is correct. Obama's campaign represents a near perfect alliance between man, moment and, last but not least, opponent. The stars have aligned for him and I don't really see what's so terrible about pointing that out. Good luck to him.
UPDATE: Of course, skin colour isn't the only reason for Obama's success. Far from it. There is, after all, as commenter Gabriel suggests, more to him than just that. After all, a less gifted politician would not have been able to overhaul Clinton, regardless of their colour. Nonetheless, his blackness has certainly - in some respects at least - made Hillary Clinton's task more difficult.