It's drive time Friday night and my cell phone is ringing. My best friend from high school is on the other end of the line and he's fuming about what he's heard all day on Rush Limbaugh about Barack Obama and his pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"Can you believe this stuff? What Obama's pastor is saying about white people and September 11th. It's ridiculous. Racist! . . . If he becomes president man, I'm going to Canada," he says, half-kidding.
My friend is a 28-year-old white male who lives in New Jersey and does sales for a living. That means he makes around six-figures a year and spends a good part of his day in a car -- listening to talk radio. And now he's barely letting me get a word in. He's talking so fast I can barely make him out. But this has been festering for weeks. He thinks Obama's gotten a free ride from the media, and as a proud Bush-loving conservative, he's worried the Illinois Senator is going to become president. I love my buddy like a brother, but at times, he shows signs of the angry white male. He might even agree.
Later that night, I get a text message from Mom (yes, I taught Mom to text!). She writes that she's worried the flap over Rev. Wright has caused Obama the election. "I just hope McCain can beat Hillary," she texts. Keep in mind, Mom is a traditional conservative. Vehemently anti-abortion and deeply concerned about the coarsening of the culture, the first thing Mom would do on any family vacation is figure out where the nearest Catholic church was. Mom doesn't miss Sunday mass. Ever. A lifelong high school math teacher, Mom voted for Bush twice and usually votes for candidates based on their abortion position. She could easily be considered a reliably Republican vote. This year just may be different. She's intrigued by Barack Obama and she can't stand Hillary Clinton. She wants Hillary to be stopped by anyone. And it's not about issues for Mom. It's about character, personality and history. Part of it is how Hillary stood by Bill during the Lewinsky saga. Part of it is Hillary's perceived love for power. Part of it might even be Hillary's early comments about "staying at home baking cookies." (Mom decided to quit teaching and stay at home to raise me and my brother when we came along.) But every Tuesday election night, Mom is rooting for Obama. She texts, "why can't the media just stay on Spitzer and leave Obama alone." "It's our job to 'stay on everyone,'" I text her back.
On Super Tuesday, another good friend of mine texts me his disgust with the results. "I can't believe this country," he writes, as California and other big states roll in for Hillary. He then, out of frustration, writes some pretty offensive things about Hillary that can't be written here. As an experiment, I repeat what he says to some of my colleagues in the newsroom. Two females immediately pipe up. One, a moderate Democrat who voted for Obama says, "that's ridiculous and so sexist. That makes me want to stand up for Hillary." Another conservative female who favored Mike Huckabee agreed. "That's highly offensive," she said. Neither of these women voted for Hillary, or even particularly like her. But their reaction to a male's uncensored thoughts on her was angry and strong. Still, my friend doesn't back down. "How could anyone cast a vote for this woman?," he writes.
To find out, I call another friend who is from St. Clairsville, Ohio. Jamie is a schoolteacher and a proud Democrat who loves Hillary Clinton. She sees Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill on the television often -- defending and promoting Obama. "What's her problem?," she asks me. "Did she forget what kind of reproductive organs she has?" I ask her why gender should matter. She says it shouldn't be the only thing, but that since I'm not a woman I can't truly understand the importance and significance of Clinton's candidacy. So why did Clinton do so well in Ohio? Jamie says her entire family is supporting Clinton. A lot of it has to do with the Clinton name, memories of bill, bread-and-butter issues. But there's also a racial factor. "A lot of them couldn't support a black man. No way. Not around here. They're just not ready," she says. "This is the Rust Belt."
When I tell Mom about that, she gives me a dose of reality. There are probably some members of my extended family who probably aren't comfortable voting for a black man either. "It's sad," she says, "but true."
At a campaign event for Jay Nixon this week, I put the question to a Teamsters member. What's a stronger deterrent for people with a prejudice, race or gender? "Around here, for a lot of our guys, it's race. I hate to say it, but it's true. I spoke to a longtime Democratic committeewoman here, who told me, 'I could never vote for a ni**$%.'" "And this is a Democrat," he reminded.
But he went on to say he thinks it's changing by generation. "Our older people still have issues with this stuff, but younger people, you hear less about it, whether its gender, race or even the gay issue. I think it will just take time," he said.
So while the comments of Rev. Wright and Geraldine Ferraro caused immediate shock and outrage for some, it may just be the subtle (or almost silent) conversation many voters are having around the Ozarks and in other parts of the country about race and gender. And our views on all of this are largely determined by who we are.
When I listened to Rev. Wright's comments, I found some of them to be extreme and over the top. But I'm a white male.
With rigor and passion, Rev. Wright preached about how a white woman couldn't really understand the struggle of a black man. Geraldine Ferraro implied that being a black man is a help to Obama this election cycle.
Isn't it possible that both of their main points are valid to an extent, AND are offensive to others at the same time.
Can't both be true?