NYT's Matt Bai: 'Racial Element' to GOP Attacks on Obama Harken Back to Willie Horton Ad

May 18th, 2011 11:22 AM

New York Times political reporter Matt Bai still hasn’t forgotten the "overtly racist" Willie Horton ad and sees "a racial element" in just about every attack against President Obama, no matter what the issue. His latest "Political Times" column, "Race and Republican Attacks on Obama," posted online Tuesday, pivoted from Newt Gingrich’s latest press drubbing to the matter of racism and the G.O.P.

Newt Gingrich did his level best to appear level in his "Meet the Press" interview Sunday, maintaining a mostly subdued, thoughtful tone except for one telling moment -- when David Gregory, the host, asked him if his labeling of President Obama as the "food stamp president" might have racist connotations. "Oh, come on," the former House speaker huffed. "That’s bizarre." All he meant, Mr. Gingrich went on to explain, was that Mr. Obama’s policies would turn all of America into Detroit, which probably didn’t endear him to Eminem.

Bai turned virtually every attack hurled at Obama into a racially tinged assault.

Is there a racial element to some of the attacks on President Obama? It’s pretty hard to argue there isn’t, when a conservative writer like Dinesh D’Souza argues that Mr. Obama sees the world like an African nationalist (a theory Mr. Gingrich praised again in his interview Sunday), or when Donald J. Trump asserts that Mr. Obama isn’t smart enough to have gotten into Harvard or to have written his own books.

Without defending D’Souza’s book, "The Roots of Obama’s Rage," he didn’t run with the idea of the president as a quasi-"African nationalist" out of a sense of anti-black hostility. The book’s premise is based on the theory that Obama inherited his left-wing ideology from his father, a Kenyan economist who became an anti-colonial agitator.

And as anyone who was awake during the Reagan and George W. Bush eras know, Obama is not the first president to have his intelligence or college credentials questioned. Liberal journalist Michael Kinsley was confident that the only way Bush got into Yale was by being the son of an alum.

Bai perversely gave the current crop of Republican race-baiters a pass, because after all, the GOP has always been a bunch of race-baiters. That’s right: Liberals are still whining about the Willie Horton ad from 1988.

But here’s the thing: race and cultural otherness were powerful undercurrents in Republican politics long before the nation’s first black president came along. The infamous Willie Horton ad that George Bush deployed against Michael Dukakis in 1988, you may recall, was more overtly racist than anything Mr. Obama had to parry 20 years later. Bill Clinton, John Kerry and Al Gore were all portrayed as being well outside America’s white, Christian mainstream.
Mr. Gingrich’s "food stamp" line is an homage of sorts to Ronald Reagan’s "welfare queens." This business about turning America into Detroit is exactly the kind of thing Mr. Reagan would have said, if he hadn’t been so busy trying to win Michigan’s electoral votes.

Several campaign ads during the 1988 presidential race cited the controversial furlough program under Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. While on a weekend furlough from prison where he was serving life for murder, Horton raped a woman in Maryland after having pistol-whipped her fiancé. Is it racist to have point that out?

And as the Media Research Center documented in 1992, the dubious "racism" charge against the George Bush campaign doesn’t even hold up. Bush’s own campaign ads on the issue didn’t even feature Horton's name or picture; an earlier ad showing Horton’s face was produced by an independent group. And of course, it was Democrat Al Gore who rightly raised the furlough issue during a debate against Dukakis in April 1988.