Limbaugh, Imus not singing in harmony

May 11, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Remember when media pundits were asking whether Sen. Barack Obama was "black enough" to attract black voters? That was the old media narrative. The new one goes sort of like this: "Maybe he's too black."

Take, for example, his conservative adversaries, such as talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who seems to take gleeful delight in reminding everyone of how black the Illinois Democrat is - and even more delight when the rest of us notice.

Back in mid-March, for example, el Rushbo began to air a satirical song titled "Barack the Magic Negro."

He didn't make up the term. He hijacked it fair and square.

Columnist David Ehrenstein employed the term in a Los Angeles Times essay to describe Mr. Obama's soaring appeal to white voters.

Mr. Ehrenstein compared Mr. Obama's rapid rise in the public imagination to some of the roles that actors like Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman or Will Smith have played: the black hero who arises magically to "assuage white guilt."

Mr. Ehrenstein, who is black, described "white guilt" as "the minimal discomfort" that the white film characters feel about the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history.

Mr. Limbaugh, in the fashion of our times, chastised liberal "racism" for bringing up race in this fashion, then proceeded to air a song about it. Repeatedly. Sung to the tune of "Puff, the Magic Dragon" by voice impersonator Paul Shanklin, imitating the Rev. Al Sharpton, the song goes in part like this:

"Barack the Magic Negro / lives in D.C. / The L.A. Times, they called him that / 'Cause he's not authentic like me ..."

The liberal Media Matters for America Web site immediately posted an indignant news alert and audio clip about the song. That's the same group that posted radio host Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" sound bite about the Rutgers women's basketball team that led to the loss of his national radio show within a week.

The song didn't generate much mainstream media controversy until last week. That was when Mr. Obama became the first current presidential candidate to get Secret Service protection (besides Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, who as a former first lady never stopped having it).

Citing the large number of wackos in the world, a lot of people on the Web and on talk radio, particularly listeners to Mr. Sharpton's radio show, think Mr. Limbaugh should meet the same fate as Mr. Imus. I don't.

I may not be in sync with Mr. Limbaugh's politics, but the two cases are quite different. As satire, Mr. Limbaugh's song passes three critical tests that Mr. Imus' offhand comment flunked: (1) it's funny, (2) it took at least half of a brain to think up and (3) it contains a nugget of truth.

The song in question mocks Mr. Sharpton more than Mr. Obama. The flamboyant New York preacher and talk-radio host comes off as a resentful, old-school polarizer who doesn't like to be upstaged by an upstart. Mr. Obama is portrayed as a rising star who would refuse to let the few things that divide us Americans along lines of race and class get in the way of the many things that we have in common.

Funny thing: As a guy who builds audiences by inflaming political differences, Mr. Limbaugh has more in common with Mr. Sharpton than with Mr. Obama. Birds of a feather mock together. Mr. Imus' targets, by contrast, weren't rich, famous, powerful or political.

Mr. Limbaugh's target is a wildly popular presidential candidate, which is precisely the sort of political expression that the First Amendment was written to protect.

Besides, if the potentates of political correctness come after conservative commentators like Mr. Limbaugh today, they'll come after liberal commentators tomorrow.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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