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MONDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2007
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EDITORIAL

‘Storybook candidate’ may not be what you expected

Twenty years ago, Joseph Biden’s presidential campaign foundered because he borrowed somebody else’s words without giving credit. This time, his own words have gotten him into trouble.

The problem in the 1988 campaign was that Sen. Biden, D-Del., used portions of a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock. Mr. Biden announced Wednesday that he’s running for president again. He quickly found himself defending his remarks about another presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who is black.

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Mr. Biden said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Much of the outrage focused on the word “clean,” which can have any number of benign meanings — fresh, new, honest — but also could refer to a stereotype about blacks. But the larger problem was that Mr. Biden seemed to be saying that Mr. Obama is the first black candidate who seems, well, white enough to win the presidency.

Unless there is evidence Mr. Biden is a racist, he should not be penalized for his careless choice of words — though he probably will be, because presidential races rise or sink based on perception and style as much as substance.

Mr. Biden is the one being criticized, but unfortunately he said what a lot of people were thinking. His comments challenge voters to enlarge their concept of what a president should look and be like. Stereotypes and prejudices often keep us from electing the best.

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