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Guest commentary: Words best left unsaid

Guest commentary: Words best left unsaid

Posted: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 8:01 pm
By: Richard Chesteen

 By RICHARD CHESTEEN Special to The Messenger In the fall of 2008 I taught a class on “Parties and Elections” to my students at the University of Tennessee at Martin. It was my last time to teach the course and probably the 20th time I had done so. By the 1990s I was presenting the class material in the context of “game strategy” where you have players, rules, game board, prizes, strategies, etc. One of the things I noted to the students was that although tens of millions of Americans met the Constitutional requirement for participation, that actually in any given presidential election, only a couple of dozen individuals would qualify “politically” to play the game. I would note to them the various “real world” qualifications needed as well — political party backing, money, record of performance, name recognition, right religion, suitable ethnic origin, right sex, correct age, etc. I would point out that there had been exceptions to some of these criteria. Ross Perot did fairly well as an Independent in 1992. John F. Kennedy won as a Catholic in 1960, and Ronald Reagan broke the age barrier. Still I noted that the likelihood of a woman, Jewish or minority race president any time soon might be difficult due to the realistic political hurdles one would have to overcome. I noted the difficulty George Wallace had in 1968 being a Southern “racist” governor (at least as perceived and reported by much of the mainstream media and who admitted after losing a race for governor, he would never be “out-Negroed” again). However, I did tell my students (white and minority) that President George Wallace would have to govern quite differently than Gov. George Wallace. One cannot be a racist and govern this great nation and conduct successful world affairs in this day and time. I did also point out that while Jesse Jackson had sought the presidency in 1988 he did not succeed. I do not think I ever said his skin color was too dark or he had a particular dialect, but I am sure I noted that his aggressive political style had probably turned many white people off. And, I may well have said that, given a more articulate, light-skinned and less abrasive political style, it could happen down the road that a black would succeed. I think Colin Powell could have possibly been such an African-American before Barack Obama. Would I have been accused by my minority students of racist opinion? Maybe by one or two, but I think most would have agreed that it was simply a realistic assessment of the political landscape. Now jump to Harry Reid and his comment on candidate Obama in 2008 as being light-skinned enough and not having a distinct minority dialect so that he might win. The media and Republican reaction to such a statement has been ridiculous. I say this not because I am a Democrat but as a political scientist. These kind of assessments of candidates are made all the time in the real world by people of all backgrounds and political orientations and have been since time immemorial. I can see a group of Tennessee Republican leaders sitting around and discussing the best kind of gubernatorial candidate to run in 2010 in Tennessee — conservative, anti-income tax, pro-NRA, ties to agricultural community, name recognition, right religion, rich and possible other factors. Now will all the Republican candidates meet those qualifications and will the one who best meets them be elected? Who knows; time will tell. But would a liberal, black, former mayor of Memphis get the Republican nod as their nominee for governor in 2010 if he had sought it. I will let the reader answer that question. The Republican comparison of Reid’s statement to Sen. Trent Lott’s statement at Sen. Strom Thurmond’s birthday party is again ridiculous. I have observed Trent Lott since 1962 when he and I were both at the University of Mississippi. At that time, he was a BMOC (big man on campus) undergraduate and I was an obscure graduate student. It was the year James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. Trent may have been among the rioters on that night the federal marshals brought Meredith on campus, at least in the sense of having been in the vicinity where it occurred; however, my remembrance of him in that time was as one of the student leaders who tried to promote calm and to encourage the white students to stay enrolled in the university. Lott was first elected to the House of Representatives after serving as an aide to a Mississippi congressman from the coastal area of the state and was then elected U.S. senator. He successfully rose in the Republican ranks to become the party leader. There is no doubt he sought to polish his conservative credentials but for a southern senator and certainly for one from Mississippi he never came close to engaging in the kind of demagoguery as some of his Southern predecessors, particularly Democratic Sen. Jim Eastland of Mississippi whose home was in the predominantly black populated Delta county of Sunflower and who was in Congress in the 1960s. So when he made his remarks at Sen. Thurmond’s birthday bash that the country would have been better off if he had been elected president, it was more in the heat of the moment and probably without a whole lot of reflection. However, it was a statement that cost him dearly politically and maybe should have. I wrote my graduate master’s thesis on the State’s Right or Dixiecrat Party effort in Mississippi in 1948. It was when then-South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond was running with Mississippi Gov. Fielding Wright for president and vice president on the third party ticket. I can assure you that while there were economic motivations in that campaign that never really surfaced, the racial issues permeated the campaign. Southern Democrats were incensed at President Harry Truman from the border state of Missouri, who they had forced upon Roosevelt as a VP candidate in 1944, for having abandoned them to labor unions, Northern big city bosses and the Negroes (the polite spelling that was rarely used among Dixiecrats except in formal speeches and press releases). Now what if Strom Thurmond had been elected president? What if Jesse Jackson had been elected president? Would they either one have succeeded in the history books if they had not sought to govern for all the nation? I don’t know. Would either or both of them care how history would see them? Remember, Richard Nixon destroyed his presidency by having his conversations in the White House recorded on the main basis of wanting to have them for history. However, that did not stop a very politically astute Lyndon B. Johnson from doing the same thing so that we now have his famous conversation in which he told Robert Kennedy he would not be on the ticket with him in 1964. In his famous Rubaiyat poem, the mathematician-philosopher Omar Khayyam writes: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” We all say things we wish we had not. Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was quickly confessing this past Monday that saying in an Esquire magazine interview that he is “blacker” than Barack Obama was, in his own words, “stupid, stupid, stupid.” Now in the case of Blagojevich, who cares? On the other hand, a still-active politician like Trent Lott was, at the time of his Thurmond comment, like Harry Reid is now, deserving of a little maneuvering room. Committing political hara-kari should require more than an unintended faux pas. So I hope the talk 24 hour news commentators, some of whom have little political training or understanding of the political process and other who are blatantly partisan, and our political leaders on both sides will open their eyes and ears and understand that given this country’s problems the political rhetoric could certainly be more enlightening and on point on both sides of the aisle. Richard Chesteen, a longtime Union City resident, is professor emeritus in political science at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is former chairman of the Obion County Democratic Party and was a gubernatorial candidate in 1994 Democratic Primary. Published in The Messenger 1.13.10

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