By Bob Martin

Before Gov. Rendell is inducted into the Hall of Shame for remarks that have now been deemed offensive, insulting and racist, could we please take a moment to consider what he said?

"You've got conservative whites here [in Pennsylvania], and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African American president."

Blunt? Yes. Impolitic? Indeed, especially for a sitting governor. What's important, though, is that Rendell's quote was honest. Political consultant James Carville said essentially the same thing over a decade ago - that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other and Alabama in between - and won favor for his perceptiveness and geographical humor.

That Rendell's remark has been deemed offensive is less a commentary on the governor than on the fact that many Americans are afraid to engage in frank dialogue on race these days for fear of being personally attacked.

I see it from another perspective as well: If we keep this up, we're going to turn every aspiring politician in this country into a programmed purveyor of tepid pablum. We want straight talk from our elected representatives, oh yes, but God forbid that it might strike a negative chord.

To be sure, there's another dimension to the criticism: Rendell is supporting Hillary Clinton for president, and she's in a battle royal with Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. So Rendell's comment is seen by some as an attempt to dissuade voters from supporting Obama, who is African American.

Let's be realistic. Could this really translate into political gain for Hillary Clinton? Are Pennsylvania voters who are not ready for an African American president going to be moved by Rendell and vote on April 22 for a woman and liberal Democrat whose most strident foes are white males? I can't see it.

If fault is to be found, it's that Rendell didn't balance his neutral, political-scientist assessment with a moral pronouncement. Yes, in his meeting with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board, he could have used the authority of his office to denounce racial prejudice. But as he told Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden last week, "If I wanted to inject race into the campaign . . . would I do it in a windowless room with six people? Of course not. I'd do it in a larger forum."

What this incident shows once again is that Ed Rendell has an unquenchable thirst for public comment, and it often doesn't go down easily. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee in December 2000, he urged Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore to "act now and concede" before Gore had spoken on the issue. In 2004, one day before John Kerry chose John Edwards as his running mate, Rendell opined that Edwards "lacked gravitas."

So there's nothing new here about Rendell's candor, no matter how outrageous some find it. What's refreshing is that it's the perfect foil to the politician whose every word has been sanitized, pasteurized and homogenized to the point that he has all the personality of a slab of drywall.

Lost in this ado is a bit of irony. Some might say it refutes Rendell's claim about the hearts and minds of some Pennsylvania voters. I'm referring to the 2006 race for governor that matched Lynn Swann, Republican and African American, against Rendell, Democratic and white. Everyone knows that Rendell trounced Swann, but consider this: Swann beat Rendell in 34 of the commonwealth's 67 counties. And where were most of those pro-Swann counties? In central Pennsylvania - the region Carville referred to as Alabama (a state that, coincidentally, Obama carried in the Super Tuesday Democratic primary).

So what does this prove? That conservative whites will vote for a black candidate? Or that they will vote for a Republican ex-football star and successful media personality who happens to be black?

I don't know. But that election and Rendell's remarks provide legitimate grounds for racial dialogue. And such a give-and-take can best be accomplished in an atmosphere free of accusatory words like

offensive,

insulting

and

racist.