Finding the Upside
Sometimes when you cover politics it helps to have a bottle of Pepto-Bismol handy.
Some of the tactics of the McCain campaign have given me agita recently. But the latest campaign to turn my stomach was that of Nikki Tinker, a black woman who challenged a Jewish congressman, Steve Cohen, in a Democratic primary in Memphis.
Ms. Tinker was a candidate with nothing substantive to offer. A corporate lawyer, she was not particularly knowledgeable about Iraq or the economy or other important issues of the day. The raison d’être of her campaign seemed to be that she was an African-American running in a district in which the majority of the voters were also African-American.
And so she turned to the lowest tactics imaginable. In essence: let’s smear the white guy and get rid of him.
Mr. Cohen is seeking a second term. He is a reliably progressive congressman and an opponent of the Iraq war, and he has had a consistently solid record on civil rights. He was described by Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “the conscience of the freshman class.”
So it was not just bizarre, but absolutely perverse of Ms. Tinker to try and link him in a television ad to the Ku Klux Klan. The ad, which ran this week, juxtaposed an image of Mr. Cohen with that of a hooded Klansman. The issue the ad was trying to make was completely spurious.
Mr. Cohen was criticized for a vote he cast in 2005 when he was on a development board in Memphis. The vote opposed the renaming of a park that was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was a founder of the Klan. The measure he opposed would also have required that Forrest’s body and a statue of Forrest be removed from the park.
Mr. Cohen (and a number of black officials, as well) felt the matter was not worth the protracted community turmoil that could have resulted from the proposed changes.
Commenting on the absurdity of the attempted link to the Klan, Mr. Cohen wryly commented, “It’s not like Nathan Bedford Forrest was inviting Jews over to celebrate Seder.”
The egregious Ms. Tinker was hardly finished traveling the low road. The Ku Klux Klan ad was followed by the “prayer ad.” Having exploited race against a candidate who was white, it was time to exploit religion against a candidate who also happened to be Jewish.
In the ad that followed the Klan garbage, the image of Mr. Cohen was displayed while viewers listened to the voice of a child praying, “Now I lay me down to sleep ...” The prayer is interspersed with the voice of a woman (clearly intended to sound African-American) who says:
“Who is the real Steve Cohen anyway? While he’s in our churches, clapping his hands and tapping his feet ...”
The emphasis on the word “our” is in the ad, which goes on to say, again spuriously, that Mr. Cohen voted against school prayer. The message is sick. It’s saying, in essence: Here’s this Jewish guy coming into “our” churches, tapping his feet and clapping his hands, when in reality he’s got a problem with letting “our” children pray.
The truth: Mr. Cohen has never voted against school prayer. That’s a constitutional issue that has been decided by the Supreme Court. More than 10 years ago, as a state senator, Mr. Cohen voted against a grandstanding piece of meaningless legislation named by its pandering sponsor as the “religious student liberty act.”
The proposal would have had no effect whatever on whether children could pray in school.
The prayer ad came in an environment in which leaflets were being spread, apparently by an out-of-town minister, asking: “Why do Steve Cohen and the Jews hate Jesus?”
Talk about a sinkhole. Or cesspool. Choose your metaphor.
Now the good news.
The primary vote was Thursday. And in that Ninth Congressional District of Memphis, a district that is predominantly black in a city that has had its share of racial trouble — the city in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed — Mr. Cohen won an astonishing 80 percent of the vote, sweeping all demographic categories and destroying the disgusting (yes, stomach-turning) campaign of Nikki Tinker.
For the moment, at least, we can put the Pepto-Bismol aside and raise a glass of Champagne.
The voters in Mr. Cohen’s district rejected the Tinker tactics overwhelmingly, refusing to succumb to the blandishments of racism or anti-Semitism. Instead of abandoning their congressman, they rallied around him when the filth started coming his way.