Red Meat and Barack Hussein Obama
Ohio talk radio host Bill Cunningham, who got his 15 minutes of national fame for being repudiated by John McCain for a reference to “Barack Hussein Obama” in a speech introducing McCain, defended himself last night on “Hannity and Colmes.” He was, he swears, only following orders.
His people told me to give the faithful red meat. Give them red—raw—meat.
John Amato responds, “If he’s to be believed then McCain has more more splainin’ to do because he said that McMaverick’s people told him to throw out the red meat for his opening. Even if McCain wasn’t familiar with his act—his camp knows it and to tell Cunningham to go all out only means one thing—the apology was a fraud.”
I’d never heard of Cunningham until this controversy and am not familiar with his act. Perhaps he’s the Howard Stern of Ohio political talk and this is what he does. But, generally speaking, “red meat” doesn’t mean “racial slurs.”
When the party faithful come out for a big rally, they expect to be entertained and to have some fun at the other team’s expense. Some jokes about Hillary Clinton’s 35 years of “experience” or Obama’s campaign of “hope” would be expected. Plenty of making fun of liberals and so forth. But we wouldn’t expect the speaker to explicitly refer to Clinton as a “bitch” or to hurl racial epithets at Obama. There are lines one doesn’t cross.
Some of the more memorable party convention speeches were filled with red meat. Ann Richards’ going on about George H.W. Bush being “born with a silver foot in his mouth” or Zell Miller’s claim that John Kerry wanted to defend America with spitballs. When done right, it whips up the base, makes the other side cringe, and gets the undecided thinking. If one goes too far, however, it backfires.
The “Barack Hussein Obama” thing is in a no man’s land. Making fun of people’s given name is a time-honored tradition. George Bush used to make a point of using Pete DuPont’s given name, “Pierre,” to emphasize his blue blood background. Democrats turned the table on him occasionally, using all four of his names. The problem with “Barack Hussein Obama” is that it not only implies that he’s got something in common with our enemies but it comes across as a not-so-subtle allusion to his race. It’s too close to the line for comfort and McCain was right to disassociate himself from it.
Juan Cole has a long essay about the increasingly commonality of names of Semitic origin in the United States. And then there’s this:
It is worth pointing out that John McCain’s adopted daughter, Bridget, is originally from Bangladesh. Since Hussein is a very common name in Bangladesh, it is entirely possible that her birth father or grandfather was named Hussein. McCain certainly has Muslim relatives via adoption in his family. If Muslim relatives are a disqualification from high office in the United States, then McCain himself is in trouble. In fact, since Bridget is upset that George W. Bush doesn’t like her “because she is black,” and used her to stop the McCain campaign in South Carolina in 2000, you understand why McCain would be especially sensitive to race-baiting of Cunningham’s sort. The question is how vigorously he will combat it; he hasn’t been above Muslim-taunting in the campaign so far.
But that’s a different issue entirely. Barack Obama is McCain’s probable opponent for domestic political office. The other people with “Muslim names” the campaign is “taunting” are the enemies of our country. How to simultaneously call that enemy by his name while not offending the hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t hate us is a question I can’t answer. This one, though, is pretty easy.
UPDATE: See Steven Taylor for more thoughts on why the emphasis on Obama’s name might reasonably construed as race baiting.
Correction: The original had Cunningham based out of Tennessee and referred to “other Muslims” in the last paragraph.