Greencastle, Ind. – A member of the Illinois congressional delegation went to a White House briefing recently wearing a campaign button for Democratic Senate nominee Barack Obama. When President Bush noticed the button “OBAMA!” he recoiled, obviously thinking some nut supporter of Osama bin Laden had wandered in. After it was sorted out, the president admitted he had never heard of Obama.
Illinois voters have just received the news that they, too, will have a name on the ballot most have never heard of: Alan Keyes, a radio talk show host who lives in Maryland.
Following a dizzy spring and summer of candidates losing elections and dropping out because of secrets revealed in their divorce papers, Illinois Republicans found themselves with no candidate to oppose Obama for the open Senate seat. The GOP state committee met and found no Illinois Republican willing to go on the ballot, no one to serve the party as a sure loser in a high-visibility candidacy that could pay rewards later. So they drafted Keyes.
Keyes was a protege of Democrat-turned-Republican Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and he served briefly as United Nations ambassador. He ran twice for the GOP presidential nomination, and twice, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate in his home state of Maryland. On GOP social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, he is hard-core conservative. And, of course, Keyes is black.
It is important to Keyes, who promises to establish residency in Illinois as soon as possible, that he was drafted for this job. He did not seek it. When Hillary Clinton declared for Senate in New York, a state in which she had never lived, Keyes “deeply resented her destruction of federalism.”
This is different, said the newly nominated candidate. He had to “respond to the call of the people of this state,” Keyes said, because otherwise the voters of Illinois would have no choice on fundamental issues, meaning gay marriage and abortion. So Keyes is against carpetbagging in principle, but says certain exceptions are permitted and even necessary. This is the kind of twisted logic Keyes became famous for in previous debates and campaigns.
Political carpetbagging always conveys a sense of excessive entitlement, as it did with Robert Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Hillary Clinton. In William Safire’s political dictionary, the term has come to symbolize a politician who is on the make. The famous and wealthy may not be as exploitive as in Reconstruction days, but they always require on-the-job training.
Who would vote for Keyes because they think he would be a good senator for Illinois? What does he know about the state? How much can he learn in 10 weeks? Does he know how many jobs have been lost in Illinois during the Bush presidency? The percentage of inflation in the cost of health care? The state bird? (It is not the Baltimore Oriole.)
The real question here is why the Illinois GOP leadership passed over every potentially available Republican in the state and reached for Keyes. “It was ability,” Keyes says. “Those who picked me did so on their assessment of the unique capabilities I bring to this race.”
Race was not a factor in the GOP calculations, Keyes insists. It could not have been because now both candidates are black and therefore racists have no choice so race is off the table. Keyes offers these interlocking propositions with absolute self-assurance. The Illinois GOP leadership agrees.
Civil rights leader Roger Wilkins sorts out the logic differently. Picking Keyes, he insists, was all about race. It reminds him, says Wilkins, of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s book, “Invisible Man,” where a white crowd puts two black boys in a ring and makes them fight each other.
He adds, “With Obama soaring, the Republicans decided to get a black machine gun in to mess him up. Keyes will say anything, as he did the first day when he accused Obama of a slave master’s mentality for supporting abortion.”
My guess is that the Republicans can put a Cubs hat on Keyes, but he is going to say or do something to embarrass them before this is over. The Obama-Keyes race may prove only to be a guide to how many Illinois voters care about gay marriage and abortion but nothing else. If they debate, I would buy a ticket.