Barack Obama is right. Someone who wants to be on the fast-track to the presidency probably wouldn't choose to be born black, raised by a single mother and given the name Barack Obama.
Geraldine Ferraro apparently thinks otherwise. The Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984 and supporter of Hillary Clinton set off fireworks last week with a statement that Obama owes his political success to his race.
Ferraro told the Daily Breeze of Torance, Calif.: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
Critics since have taken issue with the tone of that statement, saying it suggests that Obama has received special treatment because of his race.
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Clinton offered a lukewarm rebuff: "It's regrettable that any of our supporters -- on both sides -- because we both have this experience -- say things that kind of veer off into the personal."
But those disclaimers miss the point: What Ferraro said was fundamentally nonsensical.
Try applying the same standard to Sen. John McCain. Should McCain consider himself "very lucky" that he spent five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp? Could we say with any certainty that he would not be the Republican presidential candidate today if he had not been a POW?
Clearly, McCain's record as a war hero has contributed significantly to his political success. It helps inform us about who he is, his personal courage and his endurance.
But it doesn't tell us everything about McCain. Until we know more about his life, especially his nearly three decades as a congressman and senator, we can't fully judge his qualifications for the presidency.
If McCain had not been a prisoner of war, his life undoubtedly would be different in many ways. He might not have entered politics at all. But we can only speculate about that. We have no way of knowing one way or another.
Barack Obama's race, like McCain's POW experience, is a central element in his life and his presidential campaign. The one accurate thing Ferraro said is that "the country is caught up in the concept" of electing the nation's first black president. Both Obama and Clinton have played up the historic significance of their candidacies.
But Obama cannot be defined by his ethnicity alone -- particularly since his mother was white and he straddled the worlds of black and white growing up. Ironically, that fact led to discussions earlier in the campaign about whether he is "black enough."
But Obama's biography is much richer than what can be divined from an accident of birth. Like McCain, he is the sum of many parts.
To what extent his success in politics can be attributed to his race is a matter of conjecture. But to suggest, as Ferraro did, that he is merely the lucky beneficiary of affirmative action is offensive. That argument ignores the considerable hurdles African-Americans still face in this country -- many of which Obama also has faced -- not to mention the many talents Obama brings to the campaign.
We still are far from the day when one's skin color becomes as irrelevant to the judgment of one's character as eye color or hair color. But Obama's campaign has brought us a little closer, and his election to the presidency could bring us closer yet.
Ferraro's biggest mistake was in disparaging that instead of celebrating it.