Sean Wilentz

is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus professor of history at Princeton University

Quietly, the storm over the hateful views expressed by Sen. Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has blown away the most insidious myth of the Democratic primary campaign. Obama and his surrogates have charged that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has deliberately and cleverly played the race card in order to label Obama the "black" candidate.

Having injected racial posturing into the contest, Obama's "post-racial" campaign finally seems to be all about race and sensational charges about white racism. But the mean-spirited strategy started even before the primaries began, when Obama's operatives began playing the race card - and blamed Hillary Clinton.

Had she truly conspired to inflame racial animosities in January and February, her campaign would have brought up the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his incendiary sermons. But the Clinton campaign did not. And when the Wright stories and videos finally did break through in the mass media, they came not from Clinton's supporters but from Fox News Network.

Although Wright had until recently been obscure to the American public, political insiders and reporters have long known about him. On March 6, 2007, the New York Times reported that Obama had disinvited Wright from speaking at his announcement because, as Wright said Obama told him, "You can get kind of rough in the sermons." By then, conservative commentators had widely denounced Wright. His performances in the pulpit were easily accessible on DVD, direct from his church. But Clinton, despite her travails, elected to remain silent.

Instead, she had to fight back against a deliberately contrived strategy to make her and her husband look like race-baiters. Obama's supporters and operatives, including his chief campaign strategist David Axelrod, seized on accurate and historically noncontroversial statements and supplied a supposedly covert racist subtext that they then claimed the calculating Clinton campaign had inserted.

In December, Bill Shaheen, a Clinton campaign co-chair in New Hampshire, wondered aloud whether Obama's admitted youthful abuse of cocaine might hurt him in the general election. Obama's strategists insisted that Shaheen's mere mention of cocaine was suggestive and inappropriate - even though the scourge of cocaine abuse has long cut across both racial and class lines. Pro-Obama press commentators, including New York Times columnist Frank Rich, then whipped the story into a full racial subtext, charging that the Clintons had, in Rich's words, "ghettoized" Obama "into a cocaine user."

The Obama campaign and its supporters pressed this strategy after Clinton's unexpected win in New Hampshire. Pundits partial to Obama, including Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post and John Nichols of the Nation, instantly mused that their candidate lost because of supposedly bigoted New Hampshire whites who had lied to pre-primary pollsters - an easily disproven falsehood that nevertheless gained currency in the media.

Next morning, Obama's national co-chair, Jesse Jackson Jr., cast false and vicious aspersions about Hillary Clinton's famous emotional moment in New Hampshire as a measure of her deep racial insensitivity. "Her appearance brought her to tears," said Jackson, "not Hurricane Katrina."

Obama's backers, including members of his official campaign staff, then played what might be called "the race-baiter card." Hillary Clinton, in crediting both Lyndon Johnson as well as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Civil Rights Act in 1964, had supposedly denigrated King, and by extension Obama. Allegedly, Bill Clinton had dismissed Obama's victory in South Carolina by comparing it to those of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. (In fact, their electoral totals were comparable - and in the interview at issue, Clinton complimented Obama on his performance "everywhere" - a line the media usually omitted.)

Thereafter, Obama's high command billowed further race-baiter allegations into the media. Pointing to the notoriously right-wing Drudge Report, Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe accused the Clinton campaign of deliberately leaking a supposedly racist photograph of Obama in African garb, which actually originated on still another right-wing Web site. Finally, David Axelrod trumpeted Geraldine Ferraro's awkward remarks in an obscure California newspaper as part of the Clinton campaign's "insidious pattern" of divisiveness.

One pro-Obama television pundit, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, fulminated that the Clinton campaign had descended into the vocabulary of David Duke, former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

(In his Philadelphia speech on race, Obama pressed the attack by three times likening Ferraro to Rev. Wright.)

Since the Philadelphia speech, the candidate and his surrogates have sounded tone-deaf on the subject of race. On March 20, Obama described his Kansas grandmother to a Philadelphia radio interviewer as "a typical white person." The same day, Sen. John Kerry said that Obama would help U.S. relations with Muslim nations "because he's a black man." Another Obama supporter, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, called him the first black leader "to come to the American people not as a victim but as a leader." Her history excluded and conceivably denigrated countless black leaders, from Frederick Douglass to Rep. John Lewis. Obama remained silent, refusing to take Kerry and McCaskill to task for their racially charged remarks.

Neither candidate can win sufficient elected delegates in the remaining primaries to secure the nomination, and so the battle has moved to winning over the superdelegates. Obama's bogus "race-baiter" strategy is one of the main reasons he has come this far, and it is affecting the process now. But by deliberately inflaming the most destructive passions in American politics, the strategy has badly divided and confused Democrats, at least for the moment. And having done so, it may well doom the Democrats in the general election.