The Financial Meltdown and John McCain’s Willie Horton

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As his poll numbers have declined and the strengths he possesses on the issues of foreign policy take a back seat to the economic crisis, it’s no surprise that Senator John McCain has resorted to the time-tested strategy of fear-mongering. When not referring to Democratic opponent as “that one” and depicting him as the boogey-man who will come into your house late at night and steal the very air you breathe hasn’t been enough, the McCain campaign has created surrogates to make Barack Obama guilty by association.

The newest boogey-man on the block is Franklin Raines. And Senator Obama’s purported relationship with the former chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association), has been at the cornerstone of attempts by the McCain campaign to depict Obama as dangerous for the American economy.

Raines elevation to “boogey-man” follows a pattern we’ve witnessed where Senator Obama’s opponents use figures like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and former Weather Underground radical William Ayers to question his preparedness, his judgment and his integrity.

Why not? It worked for Republican nominee George Bush’s anti-crime presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988, when a now-infamous television ad about a black felon named Willie Horton scared the living daylights out of white America.

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But Raines is no Willie Horton. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former Rhodes Scholar when he became Vice-chairman of Fannie Mae in 1991. He stepped down from that position in 1996 to become Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton. In 1999, Raines left the Clinton administration to become the chairman of Fannie Mae with the celebratory note of being the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Raines was forced out of Fannie Mae in late 2004 under suspicions of covering up various accounting irregularities that ultimately increased his annual compensation. Many analysts point to Raines as being at the root of the sub-prime mortgage crisis that led to the collapse of Fannie Mae-and the subsequent bailout by the Federal Treasury.

Given Raines’ professional experience and their Harvard Law connection, it was likely a no-brainer for Barack Obama to seek out his expertise on the current mortgage crisis. But the McCain camp has suggested something more sinister. They claim that Raines was one of Obama’s key economic advisors.

McCain blames the practices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) for the economic meltdown and stretch connections like these to rally supporters. The McCain ad could have easily taken its cue from the conservative leaning National Legal and Policy Center. Upon the former chairman’s departure in 2004, the Center implored citizens to “Stop Franklin Raines’ Rape of Fannie Mae.”

To be fair, Raines does deserve critical scrutiny, given the revelations that he received below market loans from the troubled Countrywide Financial while heading Fannie Mae. At the time of his retirement, he was eligible for $30 million in Fannie Mae stock, while drawing a $1 million per year pension-putting him squarely in the same class as the many Wall Street execs who benefited from creating the current financial crisis.

But the aim of McCain’s ads is not to simply hold Raines accountable. Instead, the message is this: a lack of integrity and professionalism in one black man with a Harvard pedigree could very possibly extend to another. This line of reasoning just might work for those still wrapping their heads around the likelihood of an African American being the leader of the free world. But as evidenced by Raines own ascent, corporate America has long taken a more progressive view.

Raines is part of a generation of highly trained black overachievers, who in the past decade have taken the helm of major American corporations, including Richard Parsons (CEO of Time Warner from 2003-2008, who still serves as board chair), Ken Chenault (current CEO and board chair of American Express), Stanley O’Neal (CEO and board chair of Merrill Lynch until his retirement in 2007-with a compensation package worth more than $160 million), and Paula Sneed (Executive Vice President of Global Marketing Resources and Initiatives for Kraft Foods until her retirement in 2006).

Much like the careers of some of their political peers, including Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, the success of all these figures has been a mixed bag. But their track records overall are a far cry from the sense of doom that the McCain camp links to a possible Obama presidency. With Raines, however, McCain’s handlers have found this political season’s Willie Horton. Only he now sports a Harvard degree and a business suit.

Watch a McCain Ad Here:

Watch the infamous Willie Horton Ad here:

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African-American Studies at Duke University and a Visiting Scholar at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the author of four books, including the recent New Black Man.

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