Scrutiny of Obama shows he's now a contender

December 18, 2006|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- The best news for Barack Obama's presidential aspirations is a little recent negative press: Accounts of his dealings with a shady real estate developer - stories previously limited to Chicago newspapers and broadcast outlets - have begun seeping into national news reports. That means the junior senator from Illinois is no longer regarded merely as a fascinating sideshow, a black prodigy with an interesting background. He's being taken seriously as a possible presidential candidate.

As he postures for a possible run for the Democratic nomination, there is nothing better for Mr. Obama than having journalists treat him just like everybody else. That means he'll endure a searing scrutiny that obliterates any zone of privacy. His slightest missteps will be magnified.

That's how white candidates are treated when they're taken seriously. Journalists give serious presidential contenders a thorough vetting. Reporters rummage around in their finances, their voting records, their college book reports. They scrutinize candidates' health, their children, their siblings, their religious affiliations. Mr. Obama should expect nothing less.

Although racism has receded drastically in the past 50 years, America is not yet colorblind. Indeed, black Americans, even those who are accomplished, middle-class professionals, know that they are still viewed through the prism of race. That cuts both ways. Even as black corporate and political leaders struggle past stereotypes to show themselves more than competent, well-meaning whites sometimes display an awkward condescension as they applaud their achievements. That's why a little tarnish on Mr. Obama's halo isn't such a bad thing. It suggests an acceptance of him as a grown-up who can play in the deep end of the pool.

Barring additional revelations, the news reports out of Chicago show a clear lapse of judgment on Mr. Obama's part, but nothing else. The controversy stems from the senator's purchase last year of a $1.67 million home on Chicago's South Side and his subsequent financial dealings with a political fixer and Democratic contributor named Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who is under indictment in a wide-ranging corruption scandal centered on the administration of Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

According to the Chicago Tribune, on the same day that Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, closed on their house, Mr. Rezko's wife, Rita, closed on a vacant lot next door. That seems more than coincidence, because Mr. Rezko is a longtime political supporter of Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama and his wife could apparently afford the Georgian-revival home. But questions have been raised over Mr. Obama's arrangements with Mr. Rezko to construct a fence separating their adjoining properties.

So far, Mr. Obama has dealt squarely with the issue, expressing regret for his entanglement with Mr. Rezko while reiterating that the purchase of his home was ethical and proper. He also pledged to divest donations of more than $11,000 from Mr. Rezko, the Tribune reported.

Meanwhile, the charismatic senator has continued to draw adoring crowds as his book tour took him to familiar territory for presidential candidates, New Hampshire and Iowa. If he decides to enter the fray, the giddy excitement of his supporters will only intensify, as will the scrutiny by the press and his rivals.

Some of that attention is likely to take on a racial edge, especially if Mr. Obama becomes a strong candidate. Just ask U.S. Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., Democrat of Tennessee. Running to become the first black senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction, he was the target of a racially tinged ad featuring a blond woman beckoning to him with a wink; the ad, paid for by the Republican National Committee, was meant to raise the hoary old specter of black men as sexual predators, chasing after white women.

But even that ugly attack had a silver lining; it showed that the GOP viewed Mr. Ford as a threat. Indeed, he lost to former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker by just 3 percentage points.

Perhaps Mr. Obama can take some comfort in that.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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