Many people deny that ageism is as serious as sexism and racism, even some elders. And so, in a primary campaign that has given us one candidate for each ism, there is an opportunity to see how sensitivities play out.
Racism has been the most volatile. This week, Clinton supporter and 1984 vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Farraro, told a reporter that Senator Barack Obama would not be where he is today if he were not black. Then she repeated it several times.
When Obama’s campaign objected to Ferraro’s statement, Senator Clinton’s campaign manager, Maggie Williams (who is black) turned the tables, insinuating that it is Senator Obama, in his campaign’s response to Ferraro, and not Senator Clinton who is playing the race card by reneging on his word not to play the race card in the campaign. (Are you following this?)
Now Ferraro, standing her ground on her statement, has resigned from the Clinton campaign and Senator Clinton said yesterday that she "regrets, rejects and repudiates" Ferraro's words (although she didn't mention Williams' statement).
Of course, this is not the first instance of the race issue in the campaign. We have seen open and sly racial references from the beginning, including the release of a photo of Senator Obama wearing native garb in Africa even though it is hard to understand why this photo should have a negative impact. The Clinton campaign is widely believed to have leaked the photo, but it is good to keep in mind that no one knows that for certain. And there is a flourishing email crusade meant to scare off voters claiming that Senator Obama is a secret Muslim - another, more acceptable kind of racism.
A stroll around the web via the search engines reveals a lot of conversation about the gender issue. Senator Clinton is too tough, not tough enough, too shrill, is polarizing, power hungry and - she wears pantsuits. Senator Obama has been accused of demeaning Senator Clinton by holding her chair at debates.
Many feminist leaders have been insisting that this is an historic moment and a woman’s vote for anyone but Clinton is heresy. The negative response has been equally vehement and erupts about every two weeks.
A couple of days ago Germaine Greer, who has a long-term record of disagreeing with other feminist leaders, lashed out at Senator Clinton, saying she wouldn’t be where she is if not for her husband.
Senator John McCain has taken just as many hits for his age as the other two candidates have on race and gender issues. He’ll fall asleep in meetings, they say, or in one particularly vicious attack, that he’s so old he can’t even raise his arms high enough to comb his own hair. Well, no, he can’t comb his hair. But that infirmity is due to injuries when he was tortured in Vietnam, something that could happen at any age.
So it is clear that in political circles, people and campaigns are willing to appeal to voters’ basest prejudices in all three isms to win an election.
However, there is one area of the culture that has succeeded in banning bigotry – humor - but only for two-thirds of the isms. Race and gender jokes are taboo, but McCain is regularly ridiculed for his age:
“Mr. Leno and his counterparts have been merciless with Mr. McCain, peppering their monologues with digs about dementia, pills, prostates and Miracle Ears. In a nightly schtick, David Letterman compares Mr. McCain to ‘the old guy in the barbershop,’ ‘a mall-walker,’ ‘a Wal-Mart greeter’ and more. Conan O’Brien said recently, ‘After John McCain swept yesterday’s primaries, he purposely stole a line Barack Obama’s been using: I’m fired up and ready to go. When Obama heard this, he stole a line McCain’s been using: I’m old and not sure where I am.’”
- - The New York Times, 9 March 2008
Where comedians dare not go in regard to Senator Obama’s race or Senator Clinton’s gender, Senator McCain’s age is fair game.
The Times story seems to be of two minds. On one hand, the writer appears to be scolding comedians for using McCain's age as joke fodder and on the other, quotes several people who defend ageist jokes on the hoary grounds that everyone gets old and that McCain has asked for it by publicly stating he is “old as dirt.”
There was a time a few decades ago when racist and dumb blonde jokes were commonplace. The civil rights and women’s movements made demeaning people’s color and gender unacceptable. And the world is a better place for it (notwithstanding the Democrats' campaign misbehavior).
But here we are, 40 years later and David Letterman feels free to let go with something similar to this every night:
"John McCain seems reinvigorated. He has a new campaign slogan, 'He'll lead you into the 21st century.' I like it better than the old slogan, which was 'He'll lead you into assisted living.'"
Jay Leno summed it up on one show I happened to see:
“You can’t criticize Hillary. Ooh, that’s sexism. You can’t criticize Barack. Ooh, that’s racism. And you can’t go after McCain because that’s elder abuse.”
As though that's a problem for him. And the audience laughed.
[Hat tip to Chancy of driftwood inspiration]
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Sharon McKinney gives us a remarkable rendition of her day in Wednesday Concerto.]