Geraldine Ferraro sent me to the history books. Her contemptible comments about Barack Obama prompted my search through old archives and texts for facts about a long-ago political drama.




No, not that drama.




I had not forgotten the details of the 1984 Democratic presidential campaign, with Walter Mondale at the top and Ferraro in the second slot, the first woman on a major party's presidential ticket. I had not forgotten that she was named because of her gender &

as she acknowledged, even as she was casting Obama as an affirmative-action candidate.




The concept of a "gender gap" was fairly new then, and Democrats thought they might exploit it by placing a bright and attractive, if not highly accomplished, congresswoman on the ticket. There was nothing unworthy about the strategy, even though it hardly slowed the Reagan juggernaut.




Ferraro's remarks &

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position" &

brought to mind not only her affirmative-action-aided ascent into the highest ranks of the Democratic Party but, perhaps more to the point, a feud between white and black suffragists in the late 19th century. The two groups had been united by a common goal: ending the second-class status of a large segment of the citizenry by ensuring a universal franchise that included not just white men but also women and blacks.




But their alliance frayed in the competition for victimhood. As the jockeying for position began in earnest, white women bickered with black men over who deserved the vote more. With support growing for the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the franchise to black men but not specifically to women of any color, a frustrated Elizabeth Cady Stanton revealed her race-conscious condescension:




"Now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see 'Sambo' walk in the kingdom first," she wrote in a letter to an anti-slavery newspaper in 1865.




Fast-forward to the 21st century, where flashpoints between Obama and his rival, Hillary Clinton, suggest the same old feud. Even as discrimination based on race and sex fades away &

diminished enough to allow the two of them to dominate the Democratic presidential campaign &

their campaigns clash over color-coded innuendo and suggestions of sex discrimination. It's an unfortunate skirmish because it tends to diminish both candidates, allowing Republican nominee John McCain to appear the (white male) grown-up.




Clinton and Obama both have reliable blocs of supporters who see themselves in the candidate, and each bloc tends to magnify any perceived slight against its standard-bearer. Clinton gets political mileage from her occasional hints that she is trying to break through a "glass ceiling" &

and for good reason: Women represent slightly more than half of the American population. Among middle-aged professional women, especially, there is resonance with her struggle.




Obama, for his part, doesn't dare suggest he has been the victim of racial discrimination. The backlash created by such claims, which bring recollections of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton at their most incendiary, would do much more to harm him at the ballot box than to help. (Some observers believe the Clinton campaign inserts Obama's race at every opportunity to remind white voters that he is black. That hardly seems necessary; it's unlikely they've failed to notice.)




As for any political advantage owing to his brown skin, Obama is skeptical. Just two years ago, Ferraro was, too. In 2006, she told The New York Times that winning the presidency "is more realistic for a (white) woman than it is for an African-American. There is a certain amount of racism that exists in the United States &

whether it's conscious or not, it's true."




Not that either campaign has any business engaged in such speculation. The brilliant author and social critic Toni Morrison has warned against "naming a hierarchy of evil." Besides, no one gets elected president by playing the victim.




is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.