Stereotyping, polarization, and racial insensitivity have been frequent in the last three years. Yet when one collates the explicit instances (e.g., “they cling to guns and religion,” “nation of cowards,” “punish our enemies,” “put y’all in chains,” etc.), Democrats seem at least as culpable as Republicans in their indiscretions. As far as direct slurs of African-Americans in the context of the Obama candidacy, there were two infamous instances — one a reported characterization of Barack Obama by Senator Harry Reid (“a light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”), and another by Senator Joe Biden (“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”) — both insensitive stereotypes, as far as commensurate public commentary goes, ignored by Powell at the time. Were Cuomo, Biden, and Reid seen in 2008 as symptomatic of a darker liberal racism within the Democratic party?
As far as Powell’s oblique reference to Governor Sununu’s supposed racism for claiming Obama had been “lazy” in his preparation for the first presidential debate, the blunderbuss Sununu is known for just such off-the-cuff and blunt candor about everyone. Yet “lazy” is not quite Sununu’s alone: Barack Obama himself, in a moment of self-critique, earlier had used the same image to describe his own failings (e.g., “There is a deep down, underneath all the work I do, I think there’s a laziness in me”). I don’t think Obama saw any particular racial connotation in the epithet.
But more worrisome is the larger context of Powell’s remarks. If he is worried about uncivil speech, extremism, and a cruelty in the public arena, then he might have recalled that his own boss was the object of a mainstream novel imagining his assassination, of a prize-winning docudrama imagining his assassination, of a Guardian op-ed imagining his assassination, and of a New Republic essay entitled “Why I hate George W. Bush.” Those smears did not come from conservative critics, of whom there were many, and they did not prompt Powell’s commensurate outrage. But even stranger, Powell himself, as Brett Stephens recently pointed out, has allegedly said things that might be termed insensitive to Jews (e.g., “Gestapo office” and “card-carrying member of the Likud Party”) in the context of loose, political speech that is part of the Washington give-and-take.