National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Race And Gender Play Political Roles

WASHINGTON — Like it or not, race and gender will play roles in the choice of a Democratic presidential standard bearer.

It can't be avoided, even though the party's leading candidates have decided to bury the hatchet.

In the Tuesday night debate in Las Vegas, both Sens. Barak Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said their supporters had been over-zealous in their week-long tiff over the role of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the enactment of federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s. The two candidates agreed to stop the squabbling and to keep their focus on current issues.

Someday they will have to learn "the buck stops here."

For the first time in U.S. history, Democrats are considering the first viable woman candidate and the equally first viable black man for president.

The contest is unprecedented and will tell us a lot about America and where the 21st century is headed.

The political face off between Clinton and Obama has been emotional, rhetorical — and for a while looked like it would lead to a bitter split in the party.

And waiting in the wings is former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in case the Democrats decide on "none of the above."

Under ordinary circumstances, Clinton and Obama would be marching along together. But now, despite their new truce, they are pitted against one another in a competition to be the "first" to make it to the White House.

Obama represents "change" but what kind? He is eloquent and hopeful, but where is the substance, or as they say, "Where's the beef."?

Clinton is a safe familiar figure on the political scene but too beholden to the establishment to lead in any new directions.

Blacks won the right to vote under the 15th amendment in 1870, but ruses like the poll tax and literacy tests in southern states kept many from exercising their franchise. Women suffragists won the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment after women had marched, picketed and gone to jail in their 70-year campaign for the right to vote.

The 2008 battle has tightened with Obama winning the Democratic caucus in Iowa and Clinton taking the primary in a surprise victory in New Hampshire.

Apparently exhausted from campaigning and confronted with doomsday notices from the pollsters, Clinton showed her human face and nearly shed a tear the day before the New Hampshire vote. This was treated as big news because Clinton had been depicted as a hard-hearted "ice princess."

There is no question that women rallied in sympathy to her unsettling plight and gave her a needed boost in New Hampshire. Pollsters didn't capture this last-minute surge toward Clinton.

Meantime, there were rough jibes back and forth between the two camps, including the bickering over Martin Luther King's role.

Hopefully, the front runners will land their punches where they belong — on the White House.

In a New York Times article on Jan. 8, feminist leader Gloria Steinem claimed that there is more prejudice against women than against black men in American society.

Whatever the case, we know that both groups have been victims of blatant discrimination for most of U.S. history.

It's time for the chief Democratic candidates to stop shadow boxing. It's time for them to tackle tough problems such as troop withdrawal from the Iraqi debacle. It's time for them to develop a plan to stimulate the economy and to design a single- payer universal health-care system like the Medicare program.

Then we will know who really cares about the country.

             

              c.2007 Hearst Newspapers

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