Tuesday, May 01, 2007

David Ehrenstein writes, in the comments to this TBogg post:

THIS JUST IN: The CBS Evening News has decided NOT to run the interview they did with me on Friday about Obama after all.

I knew this was a distinct possibility so I can't claim to be disappointed.

And why was CBS News interested? Well (as a lot of you know), Ehrenstein wrote an L.A. Times op-ed piece describing Obama as a "magic Negro" -- a term used in film criticism to refer to African-American characters (such as the one played by Scatman Crothers in The Shining) who selflessly help whites through supernatural or near-supernatural powers and gifts. These characters are invariably the figment of white writers' imaginations.

But, er, Ehrenstein's op-ed ran a month and a half ago. Why is CBS talking to him now?

Gosh, it couldn't be because Rush Limbaugh recently aired an extended song parody called "Barack, the Magic Negro," could it? You know -- Rush Limbaugh, who was invited to deliver a commentary on the CBS Evening News in Katie Couric's first week on the air, and whose criticism of John and Elizabeth Edwards in the aftermath of the announcement of her cancer recurrence was parroted by Couric in an interview with the Edwardses?

Ehrenstein's generally a good guy. He's African-American (and I'm not), so he surely sees things about race that I miss. And he has a point -- he certainly has a point about the annoying tendency of moviemakers to create characters like this.

But "magic" in presidential races is not limited to Obama. This year, Giuliani is the Magic Urban Tough Guy and Fred Thompson is the Magic TV Tough Guy (magic in that he does something on the tube that's exciting to TV-saturated America and then also does something vaguely like it in real life, so we think we can believe his TV character is real). Mitt Romney may even be a magic guy, the latest in a long series of Magic Businessmen. And Obama's "magic" isn't just about skin color -- he's also the Magic Handsome Fortyish Guy (cf. Bill Clinton and JFK).

I don't know why American voters crave this sort of magic, but they do, and to imply that voters are ascribing qualities to Obama, and Obama alone, that he may not possess is a misunderstanding of how this country's voters think.

So Ehrenstein's only partly right -- but meanwhile he's given the right-wing character assassination machine help it absolutely doesn't need. I'm glad he won't be talking about this on CBS. I just hope Limbaugh isn't talking about it all by himself.


UPDATE: More thoughts on magic in presidential politics, from Greg T.

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