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Barack Obama's three little words -- and they weren't, 'I love you'

March 21, 2008 |  2:01 pm

Three poorly chosen words.

In the sound-bite world of political campaigning, three words have the power to overpower a broader and deeper message. So, as Barack Obama attempts to climb out of two weeks of trench-warfare over the most critical social division in America -- race -- he's going to need to refocus his campaign on the things that got him this far.

Obama didn't do himself any favors Thursday in an early-morning call to WIP-610, a sports radio station in Philadelphia, when he was asked about the comment in his Philadelphia speech on race about his grandmother and her racial view of the world.

"The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity. She doesn't. But she is a typical white person who, you know, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know, there is a reaction that has been bred into our experiences that don't go away and sometimes come out in the wrong way... That's the nature of race in our society and we have to break through it. And what makes me optimistic is you see each generation feeling a little less like that, and that's pretty powerful stuff.''

Yet the three words linger on the short loop that is cable television news and reverberate on the Internet like some bad political equivalent of the film, "Groundhog Day": "Typical white person.'' And, suddenly, the candidate who delivered what has been called the most powerful speech about racial harmony since the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is lambasted online as racist.

The truth is, virtually every white person and every black person knows ...  

precisely what Obama meant. After generations of racial segregation either de jure (Southern) or de facto (Northern), the inbred, impulsive reactions of people who either mistrust, fear or resent members of another race are no secret in America. Even those of the youngest generation, in whom Obama sees hope for progress, can probably recall a parent or grandparent who has given voice to precisely what Obama meant: "Typical.''

Obama also was asked in the radio interview if he bears any "added responsibility'' as an African American in becoming president.

"I think that, if I'm in the Oval Office, I've got all kinds of things to worry about. You know, that comes with the job. But I wouldn't be running If I wasn't confident that I can help the country work through some of these issues, at the same time as we're taking care of the business at hand, which is making sure that the economy is working for ordinary people, that we've got health care, that they can afford to send their kids to college, that we can end this war in Iraq that has cost us so dearly in blood and treasure.''

And toward the end of another long campaign day that started with sports radio at dawn, Larry King also asked him on CNN Thursday night what he meant about "typical white person."

"Well, what I meant really was that some of the fears of street crime and some of the stereotypes that go along with that, you know, were responses that I think many people feel. She's not extraordinary in that regard. She's somebody who I love as much as anybody. I mean, she has literally helped to raise me.

"But those are fears that are embedded in our culture and embedded in our society. And, you know, even within our own families, even within a family like mine that is diverse, you know, there are those gaps in understanding or the stereotypes that are fed by the news media and fed by what we see around us and, you know, in our popular culture.

"And so the point I made is that good people, people who are not in any way racist, are still subject to some of these images and stereotypes and that it's very hard to escape from them."

King asked if Obama thought this might hurt the campaign.

"My campaign has always been built on a confidence in the American people, that we can talk honestly about issues, that we can acknowledge that they're complicated, that we can disagree without being disagreeable, that we can understand each other's point of view, and that if we take the time to listen to each other, if we're honest with each other, if we're not trying to demonize each other, then we can solve problems, that we can, in very practical ways, start investing in infrastructure to put people back to work in this country ....

"So I think that this is a good example of the kinds of tough, sometimes uncomfortable issues that are going to come up in our politics. But I have confidence in the American people's fairness, that they're going to judge me based on who I am, what I've talked about, the kind of campaign we've run, and the track record of 20 years of service. And if they believe that I can help them in their lives and make their lives and their children's lives and grandkids' lives a little bit better, then I have confidence that they're going to support me and we have a chance to really change this country.''

There -- a few hundred words that should help put the political debate back on the track where it belongs.

-- Mark Silva

Mark Silva wrote this for The Swamp blog for the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau.