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Context matters in photo of Obama in tribal garb

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., wears Somali garb in 2006 while visiting Kenya, near the border with Somalia.

Associated Press

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., wears Somali garb in 2006 while visiting Kenya, near the border with Somalia.

WASHINGTON — The only thing more striking than the photograph of Sen. Barack Obama in a turban that's making the rounds this week is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's reaction to it.

The photo of Obama in Somali tribal garb was posted Monday on the Drudge Report, a popular Internet hub for scandal, and identified as coming from the Clinton campaign.

The Clinton campaign hasn't directly denied this, saying it can't speak for the actions of its 700 staffers. But as Obama accused Clinton of playing dirty in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams sought to suspend reality.

"Enough," she said in a statement. "If Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed."

Substitute Clinton for Obama in the photo, then sure. Or Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

For Obama, however, the picture is likely to be taken as much more than a visiting dignitary playing dress-up to honor his hosts.

Since early last year, Obama's campaign has been waging a counterinsurgency against an insidious whisper campaign, conducted primarily via the Internet, that he is a Muslim (not true), that he took the oath of office on the Koran (not true), that he refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance (not true).

The photo gives the movement something it has lacked: a visual aid.

Yet Clinton called the dustup laughable.

"Every time I traveled to foreign countries, I wore the costume of the country," she said in Dallas. "You can find me wearing African outfits, Latin American outfits, Asian outfits. When you travel to foreign countries, it's a sign of respect. What does that have to do with anything?"

An idea of foreignness

In a political campaign, any doubt is good enough, and the photo of Obama in the white robe and turban during a 2006 trip to Kenya's border with Somalia will only feed it, experts say.

Its prominent spot on the Drudge Report and the frequency with which it was played on cable proved that in short order.

"It's pretty disingenuous of the Clinton camp to act like, 'What's the big deal?' " said professor Matthew Wilson, an expert in religion and politics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"It's pretty clear that this re­inforces the notion of Obama's foreignness, or his alien nature, that could be helpful to the Clinton campaign."

Though Obama appeared angry about the photo Monday, by Tuesday he seemed willing to let it drop.

"Certainly I don't think that photograph was circulated to enhance my candidacy. I think that's fair to say," he said in Cleveland. "Do I think it's reflective of Sen. Clinton's approach to campaigning? Probably not."

Tom Eldon, partner at Schroth, Eldon and Associates in Washington, a Democratic polling firm that is neutral in the race and has conducted polls for the St. Petersburg Times, called Clinton's reaction to the photo "fatuous."

"You don't have Hillary Clinton being victimized by Internet rumors that she's Muslim, you don't have Hillary Clinton having the middle name of Hussein," Eldon said. "It's not the same when Hillary Clinton wears native garb, because she doesn't have the story that Barack Obama has."

He added, "It seemed to me to be extremely xenophobic and playing on the fears that he's different."

'Exotic' background

Obama, of course, is different. Barack Hussein Obama Jr.'s mother was white and his father was black, a nonpracticing Muslim from Kenya. Obama was born in Hawaii.

His parents split when he was 2, and his mother married an Indonesian, who took his family to Jakarta. Obama attended a public school whose curriculum included teachings from the Koran, the Muslim holy text.

He returned to Hawaii at age 10 to live with his maternal grandparents, who had emigrated from Kansas.

"Even as it relates to African-Americans, Barack Obama's existence is very exotic," said Michael Fauntroy, a scholar of race and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "That is an additional overlay beyond the obvious of him being a black American running for president."

Diversity paradox

People who have received the false e-mails about Obama say his background makes the charges easier to believe. Yet his background has also been a political boon, providing depth to his message of hope and change, to his claim that a new day in American politics is dawning.

Obama has usurped Clinton as the Democratic front-runner, and polls show him gaining in Ohio and Texas, which vote on Tuesday. If she doesn't win both handsomely, her chance at the White House may be shot.

"The Obama campaign would like to have its cake and eat it, too," Wilson said. "To use difference and diversity as a tool for generating excitement and motivation … but at the same time avoid any of the baggage, or the negativity, that comes with being from outside the American mainstream."

That is the paradox of Obama's campaign. Even as he and his supporters hold up his electoral success as proof that the nation is more tolerant, he has shied away from race and heritage.

"Politically, I understand it. There's so much history that suggests overtly black candidates can't win some … elections," Fauntroy said. "But as an African-American, I'm bothered by it.

"If things weren't what they once were, let's talk about some of these unique issues … including for African-Americans. Or even identify with his blackness."

On Tuesday, conservative Cincinnati talk show host Bill Cunningham repeatedly used Obama's middle name, Hussein, while warming up the crowd at a McCain event.

McCain later apologized, saying that using "Hussein" as a political jab was inappropriate, NBC reported.

Tuesday morning on MSNBC, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, who has been campaigning hard for Clinton, addressed Obama's heritage in quite a different way. "Let me say this: I have no shame or no problem with people looking at Barack Obama in his native clothing, in the clothing of his country," she said.

"This is a diverse country and people across America recognize that. … We would hope that America is going to have an opportunity or begin to see if we're supporting a woman or an African-American for president, we ought to be able to support their ability to wear the clothing of their nation."

Times researcher Melissa August contributed to this report.

Context matters in photo of Obama in tribal garb 02/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 3:58pm]
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