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- JANUARY 17, 2012
- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE
Why They Stood and Cheered
Gingrich confronts the left's insidious theory of racial supremacy.
Call me crazy, but
I think insulting voters
Will warm them to me
Why They Stood and Cheered
The live-audience reaction to Republican presidential debates is a matter of great public significance--so great that even the president of the United States takes time out from his duties to evaluate it. We anxiously await President Obama's comment on what, as far as we know, is a first in the history of presidential debates: a standing ovation.
It happened at last night's debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., which was sponsored by Fox News Channel and The Wall Street Journal. FoxNewsInsider.com describes the exchange that prompted it:
Juan Williams questioned Newt Gingrich about his recent comments that black Americans should "demand jobs, not food stamps," and that Obama is a "Food Stamp President." When asked if he could see why these comments might be insulting to African-Americans, Gingrich said flatly, "No, I don't see that."
He then went onto [sic] propose a janitorial program that would allow students to do light janitorial work while continuing their studies, paying them and teaching them the value of work. He said that they would be earning money, "which is a good thing if you're poor. Only the elites despise earning money."
Williams then pressed, suggesting that Gingrich's comments, including references to President Obama as a "Food Stamp President," were intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities.
Gingrich responded, "The fact is more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history."
He proclaimed, "I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their Creator with the right to pursue happiness, and if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job."One might ask: What's race got to do with it? An essay carrying that title appeared on the New York Times website two days before the debate, but the question turned out not to be rhetorical. The author, Lee Siegel, was writing about Mitt Romney's campaign, not Gingrich's, but there is a clarifying resonance between his piece and Gingrich's response to Williams.
Siegel writes that "Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory." That sounds like a promising start to a Chris Rock comedy riff, but Siegel means it as a serious thesis.
"I'm not talking about a strict count of melanin density," Siegel writes. Rather, he refers to something he imagines is less ludicrous: Romney's "whiteness grounded in a retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America."
This is almost like a Peggy Noonan observation from a few months ago:
Mr. Romney's added value is his persona. He's a little like the father in one of those 1950s or '60s sitcoms that terrorized and comforted a generation of children from non-functioning families: Somewhere there was a functioning one, and it was nice enough to visit you on Wednesday at 8. He's like Robert Young in "Father Knows Best," or Fred MacMurray in "My Three Sons": You'd quake at telling him about the fender-bender, but after the lecture on safety and personal responsibility, he'd buck you up and throw you the keys.Almost but not quite, for Noonan did not racialize the type. In her telling, it is Romney's confident, responsible masculinity that is reassuring. In Siegel's, it is the color of Romney's skin.
Siegel also conflates Romney's ideological criticism of Obama with "whiteness":
While Mr. Romney may, in some people's eyes, be a non-Christian, he is better than any of his opponents at synching his worldview with that of the evangelicals. He likes to present, with theological urgency, a stark choice between, in his words, President Obama's "entitlement society" and the true American freedom of an "opportunity society." . . .
In this way, whether he means to or not, Mr. Romney connects with a central evangelic fantasy: that the Barack Obama years, far from being the way forward, are in fact a historical aberration, a tear in the white space-time continuum.Siegel isn't the first to define the "opportunity society" as being for whites only. Last June, as we noted, MSNBC's Chris Matthews accused Romney of having employed a "slur" for observing of Obama that in his approach to economic policy, "he's awfully European." Matthews apparently is unaware that Europe's biggest export to America has been white people.
Romney and his fellow Republicans are making a case (at least relative to President Obama) for economic freedom and against the expansion of government. To be sure, one may prefer Obama's policies on reasoned grounds that have nothing to do with race. It is also true that for most of America's history, and as recently as the 1960s, blacks were denied the freedoms, economic and otherwise, that whites took for granted.
Getty ImagesThat's telling them.
But no Republican running for president is proposing a return to Jim Crow or a repeal of civil rights laws. Siegel's implicit notion that only whites are capable of benefiting from economic freedom under a regime of legal equality amounts to an insidious theory of racial supremacy.
That is the idea that Newt Gingrich repudiated in answer to Juan Williams's (not particularly objectionable) question. That is what brought the crowd to their feet.
The people who stood and cheered as the former speaker forcefully defended the freedom of "every American of every background" were mostly white members of today's Republican Party in the state that started the Civil War and later produced "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman and Strom Thurmond. That it was Martin Luther King Day was lagniappe.
Next to the election of a black president, we'd say that Gingrich's standing O was the most compelling dramatization of racial progress so far this century. Which isn't to say that racism has been completely eradicated. It lives on in the minds of liberals who see Bull Connor when they look at Ozzie Nelson.