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The name game and Obama

February 26, 2008 |  2:20 pm

Bill Cunningham, a conservative radio talk show host based in Cincinnati, won a National Assn. of Broadcasters Marconi Award in 2001. Today, he staked his claim for a different "honor" -- cheap shot artist of the year -- with his repeated and pointed references to "Barack Hussein Obama" as he helped emcee a rally in his hometown for John McCain.

As Times reporter Maeve Reston relates here, McCain, to his credit, quickly repudiated the type of "help" Cunningham was providing. Referring to the incessant use of Obama's middle name, the presumed Republican presidential nominee said, "It will never happen again. It will never happen again."

That comment earned a rapid note of thanks from Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton. "It is a sign that if there is a McCain-Obama general election, it can be intensely competitive but the candidates will attempt to keep it respectful and focused on issues," Burton said.

Despite McCain's pledge, though, the type of message Cunningham sought to send today almost assuredly will happen again. Perhaps not at an officially sanctioned ...

... McCain event, but surreptitiously, in the technological age's equivalent of a nasty whispering campaign. And as Canadian journalist Sheldon Alberts reminds us in this post, Cunningham is hardly the first to play the Obama middle-name card in the mainstream. Other culprits include Rush Limbaugh (no surprise there) and Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia (in recent comments on Bill Maher's talk show).

This is, after all, the second straight day in which attention has been called to distinctive elements of Obama's background. The contretemps over the photo posted on the Drudge Report of Obama wearing native garb during a trip to Kenya arose precisely from the fact that, unlike with anyone who has ever come this close to the American presidency, his heritage is partly African.

Similarly, his name is unusual in the annals of prospective presidents -- Van Buren, Roosevelt and Eisenhower are about as exotic as it gets for White House occupants to date.

So if Obama succeeds in nailing down the Democratic presidential nomination, be prepared for more attempts -- some subtle, some not so -- to tap into simple, blatant prejudices to attempt to derail him. And the test as to whether America has progressed as far as many hope it has also would seem to be fairly simple -- the degree to which these efforts succeed.

-- Don Frederick

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