In Frank Rich's Sunday column for the New York Times, "Small Beer, Big Hangover," Rich drained the last dregs out of the White House beer summit, involving the president, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, but not before using it to launch his grand unified field theory of the re-emergence of racism among conservatives in the wake of Obama's victory.
Deploying his usual melodramatic flair (Rich was once the paper's theatre critic), Rich wrapped the Gates arrest controversy together with the Birther brigade, and tied on other events with the slightest hint of skin-color content, like Judge Sonia Sotomayor's impending Supreme Court confirmation.
The White House get-together took place to quell an outcry after Obama, during a national press conference, said the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates.
The comforting thing about each "national conversation on race" is that the "teachable moment" passes before any serious conversation can get going.
This one ended with a burp. The debate about which brew would best give President Obama Joe Six-Pack cred in his White House beer op with Harvard's town-and-gown antagonists hit the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Had Obama picked a brand evoking an elitist whiff of John Kerry -- Stella Artois, perhaps? -- we'd have another week of coverage dissecting his biggest political gaffe since rolling a gutter ball at a Pennsylvania bowling alley.
It's also stupid to look at Harvard as a paradigm of anything, race included. If there was a teachable moment in this incident, it could be found in how some powerful white people well beyond Cambridge responded to it. That reaction is merely the latest example of how the inexorable transformation of America into a white-minority country in some 30 years -- by 2042 in the latest Census Bureau estimate -- is causing serious jitters, if not panic, in some white establishments.
While blaming Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck for stoking racism by calling Sotomayor and Obama racist, Rich ignored examples that leaned against his overarching thesis of racist Republicans, such as scholar Gates's enlightened contribution to racial healing, as captured on the police report: "I'll speak with your mamma outside," he told Sgt. Crowley during their confrontation.
What provokes their angry and nonsensical cries of racism is sheer desperation: an entire country is changing faster than these white guys bargained for. We've been reminded repeatedly during Gatesgate that Cambridge's mayor is a black lesbian. But a more representative window into the country's transition might be that Dallas County, Tex., elected a Latina lesbian sheriff in 2004 (and re-elected her last year) and that the three serious candidates for mayor of Houston this fall include a black man and a white lesbian.
Rich smeared the Birthers as racist with no evidence. Conspiratorial and wrong? Fair enough. But there's nothing necessarily racist about believing Obama was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii.
Rich then willfully conflating his chronology to smear Sarah Palin as a proto-Birther:
Obama's election, far from alleviating paranoia in the white fringe, has only compounded it. There is no purer expression of this animus than to claim that Obama is literally not an American -- or, as Sarah Palin would have it, not a "real American." The birth-certificate canard is just the latest version of those campaign-year attempts to strip Obama of his American identity with faux controversies over flag pins, the Pledge of Allegiance and his middle name.
Did Palin sign on to the "birther" movement, or did Rich post hoc draft her into it based on an unrelated, out-of-context comment from the campaign trail? And will Rich's readers catch his dishonesty?