Today Obama spoke with the officer who arrested Henry Louis Gates and will meet with both men at the White House. Lloyd Grove on why the GOP isn't pouncing on the controversy.
There was a time—a simpler time, to be sure—when the Republican Party would have known just how to capitalize on the Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. imbroglio and President Barack Obama’s severe critique of the Cambridge, Mass., police department.
Imagine what the late Lee Atwater would have done with it. He masterminded Bush’s racially charged Willie Horton attack against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. In 1988, it was powerfully effective. Willie Horton, an African American, was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in Massachusetts for stabbing a teenager 19 times. In 1986, Horton was released on a weekend furlough program that was stubbornly supported by then-Governor Dukakis over widespread opposition. While out on furlough, Horton made his way to Oxon Hill, Maryland, and brutalized a young white couple, pistol-whipping, knifing and gagging the man and twice raping his fiancée.
Republican operatives would have seen a golden opportunity to peel away so-called Reagan Democrats—a voting bloc that, two decades ago, was perceived as the opposite of a spent force.
“There is a story about a fellow named Willie Horton who for all I know may end up to be Dukakis' running mate,” Atwater snickered in a speech to Southern Republicans while Gov. Dukakis was searching for a vice-presidential candidate. “Dukakis is making Hamlet look like the rock of Gibraltar in the way he's acted on this. The guy was on TV about a month ago and he said you'll never see me standing in the driveway of my house talking to these candidates. And guess what, on Monday, I saw in the driveway of his house? Jesse Jackson. So anyway, maybe he'll put this Willie Horton guy on the ticket after all is said and done.” (Nice touch that—conflating the vicious black criminal with the respected black clergyman and presidential candidate.)
It’s no wonder that Bush media consultant Roger Ailes, now chairman of Fox News, was widely disbelieved when he disclaimed responsibility for the notorious Willie Horton commercial, which made use of Horton's photo (a sinister-looking, dark-skinned man sporting an Afro) and was produced by a close Ailes associate for an ostensibly independent advocacy group.
Twenty-one years later, the racial conversation is dominated by a close encounter between an African-American Harvard University professor and the working-class white police sergeant who put him in handcuffs. What actually happened is less than clear, but the volume of the cable chatter has been pumped up to maximum since our first black president used a prime-time White House press conference this week to comment that the Cambridge cops “acted stupidly” in responding to Skip Gates’ neighbor’s 911 call of a possible break-in.
The official Republican response has been decidedly muted. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has posted a tepid invitation on its Web site, asking voters, “Do you think it’s appropriate for our nation’s commander in chief to stand before a national audience and criticize the men and women in law enforcement who put their lives on the line every day, when by his own admission, he doesn’t even know all the facts?” A leading question, but hardly a call to arms.
Revealingly, a prominent Republican media consultant didn’t want to touch this subject with a barge pole when I phoned him yesterday. “I know it’s bannered on Drudge right now, but I don’t know what the gory details are,” he said, speaking on condition on anonymity because “I don’t want to get in the middle of this.” “I think there are too many real issues out there, so we don’t need to deal with this one.”
Another consultant, Alex Castellanos, preferred to shift the focus from the Gates incident to Obama’s “rashness and recklessness—which we can see in everything from his throwing trillions of dollars at everything to his health-care plans.”
Back in the last century, when Atwater was happily plying his trade, the GOP’s anti-Obama Skip Gates attack ad would have been released within hours of the president’s statement, decrying Obama’s lack of support for our brave men and women in law enforcement—with an unstated expression of racial resentment floating none-too-subtly below the surface. Republican operatives would have seen a golden opportunity to peel away so-called Reagan Democrats—a voting bloc that, two decades ago, was perceived as the opposite of a spent force.
Rogue Republican Party boss Rush Limbaugh was surely channeling the ghost of Atwater when he claimed on his radio show Thursday that “Skip Gates wanted to be arrested and provoked the cop… Gates instantly saw opportunity for capital "P" publicity, a chance to get out from the shadow of his former colleague, Cornel West—there's a rivalry between those two guys.” Limbaugh added that the Harvard academic division that Gates directs, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, is “an entire department devoted to creating racial friction.”
But the Republican establishment has just suffered through the crucible of the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, in which their attempts to portray history’s first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee as a reverse racist blew up in their faces. Once burned, twice shy—never mind Pat Buchanan’s eccentric advice that the GOP must pander to aggrieved white males if it wants to win in 2010.
That group—Atwater’s constituency—is fast becoming a marginalized minority.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.