The real story about race in this election is not that racism might hurt President Obama, but that it might help him, The Washington Post's George Will writes because the left is too obsessed with race. If Americans can't fire Obama in this economy, Will says, "the 2012 election speaks well of the nation’s heart, if not its head." He adds, "That Obama is African American may be important, but in a way quite unlike that darkly suggested by, for example, MSNBC’s excitable boys and girls who, with their (at most) one-track minds and exquisitely sensitive olfactory receptors, sniff racism in any criticism of their pin-up," he writes. That's a fairly odd criticism for Will to make considering how much his long punditry career has centered on race.
Some of the things Will said in the 1990s have not aged well, like, "If he were white we wouldn't be talking about this," which was what Will said on ABC's This Week with David Brinkley on September 17, 1995, about Colin Powell's potential presidential campaign. Will's big concern: Powell was too soft on affirmative action. But in the 1996 campaign, Jack Kemp was so much worse than Powell. Kemp had been a supporter of affirmative action, but went through a "metamorphosis" to be Bob Dole's running mate in the 1996 presidential race. Dole had backed the California Civil Rights Initiative, which would have banned affirmative action in the state. Kemp half-heartedly endorsed CCRI, then took it back. No one was more infuriated than George Will.
Affirmative hadn't really been a big part of the 1996 campaign until Dole started using it to attack Clinton in mid-October, when he was losing bad. Kemp didn't really participate. In the October 9, 1996 vice presidential debate with Al Gore, Kemp said, "Affirmative action should be predicated upon need, not equality of reward, not equality of outcome." He said "this country has yet to deal with the type of exclusionary policies."
Will was outraged. He wrote that Kemp was "oblivious to the fact that affirmative action has to do with race rather than with need." He said Kemp was a wuss: "Kemp avoids divisive issues because he is a 61-year-old puppy, eager to please and to be praised by people who have no intention of voting for the Dole-Kemp ticket." CCRI, Will huffed, is "almost certainly is more popular than Dole is in every California congressional district, including minority districts."
On the October 13, 1996 edition of This Week With David Brinkley, Will got his chance to confront Kemp on his wussiness. First Sam Donaldson told Kemp that Republicans thought he was "a garrulous, unprepared wimp." Cokie Roberts chimed in, asking if he'd shied away from "good issues for Republicans." Which ones? Race, of course. "What about affirmative action, where some people thought that that would be the issue that would carry California for the Republicans?" Kemp said he backed a "type of an entrepreneurial affirmative action program" that would promote ownership and entrepreneurship. Will did not like this. Look how mad he was! He just goes on and on:
WILL: Mr. Kemp, one more thought… on affirmative action. You said on another program last weekend that taking race into account in college admissions was as benign as taking football ability, geography, or being the relation of an alumnus of that college. Is that your view, that race is just another factor like football ability?
KEMP: It is one factor, it is not the sole factor. And race as an issue that leads to a quota is so easy to be against, George, that I am surprised that you'd even bring it up. Should it be a factor if there is no diversity in a college? Yes. But it should not be-
WILL: Well, precisely, quotas-
KEMP: -the sole factor, and that's what you had said.
WILL: -quote- quotas are easy to be against. In fact, they're a straw man. Let me ask you a question. In the debate with Mr. Gore, Mr. Gore said he's for affirmative action for diversity purposes. The Supreme Court says that's unacceptable. What do you say?
KEMP: I agree with the Supreme Court. But it is important to have an inclusive society that is diverse, and it ought to be done affirmatively without leading to race-based quotas, set-asides, preferences, and taking something from someone based on color and giving it to someone else based on color. What we need is an economy that's growing, a nation that has educational opportunity and school choice-
WILL: Let me-
KEMP: -for low-income families-
WILL: Enough cosmic issues for a moment. Let me ask you about two small matters-
KEMP: It's cosmic when I talk about it, but when you talk about it, it is what?
As election day neared, USA Today praised Clinton and Dole for not "injecting race into the campaign." But not Will. He was still mad that Dole hadn't made race an even bigger issue in the campaign:
Dole has cried out to the country, “Where’s the outrage?” Well, there are overflowing reservoirs of it in Republican ranks regarding Dole’s running mate, whose campaign was a prolonged dance of narcissism. Like the Cheshire cat’s grin, nothing lingers from Jack Kemp’s campaign but the image of him preening about being too virtuous to be “divisive” by making a sustained, principled attack on the people who, by enforcing racial preferences, are dividing the country with a racial spoils system. Kemp, who scolded some Republicans for not being loyal team players, said, shortly before Dole belatedly took up the issue of racial preferences, that Dole, too, was too pure to do that.
Weirdly, The Washington Examiner pasted this passage, calling it "angry and entirely accurate," when Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan, who worked for Kemp early in his career, as his running mate. Ryan, the Examiner said, would be a "vastly better" candidate than Kemp. But 16 years later, Kemp looks a lot better than Will does.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.