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Racial Politics, Clinton Style | The Nation

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Racial Politics, Clinton Style

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In the escalating battle between his campaign and Hillary Clinton's over civil rights history and racial politics, Barack Obama launched a pre-emptive strike of civility earlier this week. "I don't want the campaign at this stage to degenerate to so much tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, that we lose sight of why we are doing this," Obama said Monday while campaigning in Nevada. "Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have historically been on the right side of civil rights issues." Clinton responded by saying that "when it comes to civil rights and our commitment to diversity, when it comes to our heroes--President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King--Senator Obama and I are on the same side." A truce was declared by the national media.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to clarify remarks to a reporter by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo that were interpreted by some media critics as a slur against Barack Obama. In fact, neither the question nor Cuomo's answer mentioned Obama.

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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It didn't last. On Tuesday, the Clinton campaign released "talking points" to reporters that kept the issue alive. "Over the last few days, the Obama campaign has distributed recent comments from Senator Clinton and President Clinton to suggest that they were diminishing Senator Obama's candidacy and casting aspersions on the legacy of Martin Luther King," the talking points stated. "There are media reports that the Obama campaign is distributing a memo in an effort to sensationalize and drive this story. This is unfortunate, especially coming from a campaign that says it is about bringing people together." The release went on to declare that "Nobody wants to see the injection of race or gender into this campaign."

It's a little late for that. No matter who injected race or gender into this campaign, it's not going away. Obama and Clinton had nothing but nice things to say about the other's civil rights record at Tuesday's debate in Nevada. But at the same time, the subject of race could rear its ugly head at any time going forward. After all, race has always been used as a wedge issue in political campaigns, including by the Clintons, dating back to Bill's run for the presidency in 1992.

During his famed "Sister Souljah" moment in June 1992, Bill Clinton went before Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and condemned the black rapper for seeming to justify the Los Angeles riots and advocate the killing of whites. "Her comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with the kind of hatred that you do not honor," Clinton said. His remarks were cheered by establishment pundits, but they stirred controversy and resentment among prominent black political figures. "Clinton's speech was arrogant, and it was cheap," longtime civil rights activist Roger Wilkins told the New York Times. "He came there to show suburban whites that he can stand up to blacks. It was contrived." The Reverend Jesse Jackson accused Clinton of staging "a very well-planned sneak attack, without the courage to confront but with a calculation to embarrass," intended "purely to appeal to conservative whites." Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel, now a top supporter of Hillary Clinton, labeled Bill's behavior "insulting."

During the campaign, Clinton angered members of the African-American community in other ways, too. He went back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally ill black man, Rickey Ray Rector, who'd been convicted of shooting a white cop; he played golf on numerous occasions at a segregated country club in Little Rock; he was photographed at a Georgia prison in front of an all-black chain gang.

These moments are now mostly forgotten, and today Clinton is widely regarded as the "first black president," in Toni Morrison's immortal words. As the junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton forged close ties with New York's black community. President Clinton chose to base his foundation's operations in Harlem. No right-thinking person would accuse the Clintons of being insufficiently committed to racial equality or civil rights.

Yet as Hillary Clinton fell in the polls last winter, her campaign and its supporters, whether intentionally or not, began floating racially coded attacks against Obama. They started with Obama's admitted use of marijuana and "maybe a little blow when you could afford it" as a high schooler in Hawaii, described briefly with refreshing candor in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. On December 12, Clinton's New Hampshire co-chair Bill Shaheen insinuated that if Obama were the Democratic nominee, "one of the things [Republicans] certainly are going to jump on is his drug use," asking questions like, "'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'" The Clinton campaign quickly disassociated themselves from Shaheen's tasteless remarks.

There is evidence that the Clinton campaign itself was pushing similar tactics. A day before Shaheen's remarks, veteran reporter Thomas B. Edsall wrote a column on the Huffington Post titled "As Iowa Nears, Clinton Allies Quietly Raise Obama's Cocaine Use." Edsall didn't name the "allies" but reported that Democratic activists had received e-mails from Clinton partisans with a link to an Iowa Independent story headlined "The Politics Of Obama's Past Cocaine Use." Members of Clinton's campaign urged reporters to dig deeper into this matter.

On December 13, Clinton's top strategist, Mark Penn, appeared on MSNBC's Hardball and kept repeating the word "cocaine," drawing a strong rebuke from Edwards strategist Joe Trippi and supporters of Obama. The topic of drugs died down but other smears took its place, namely the right-wing e-mail lie that Obama is a Muslim. Two Clinton county chairs in Iowa were caught forwarding an e-mail claiming that Obama attended a madrassa as a child in Indonesia, where he lived from the age of six until ten. Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator and prominent support of Clinton's, referred to the Illinois senator as "Barack Hussein Obama" on national TV and then clarified this by saying that there was nothing wrong with Obama's having attended a "secular madrassa."

Clinton supporters also raised the issue of race in terms of electability. "We've got to keep an eye on electability," said a Clinton precinct captain in Cherokee, Iowa. "Is America ready for a black president?" Obama supporters never asked whether America was ready for a woman president.

After her loss in Iowa, some Clinton supporters adopted a harder edge, trying to paint Obama as a radical black man; another unelectable Sharpton or Jackson. "He is the candidate of the 'identity left,'" one Clinton supporter told the Huffington Post. According to Tom Edsall, Clinton aides pointed to Obama's "alliances with 'left-wing' intellectuals in Chicago's Hyde Park community," on the city's South Side and "his liberal voting record on criminal defendants' rights," such as opposition to mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes, raising the age-old fear of black politicians being soft on crime. One Clinton advisor told The Guardian: "If you have a social need, you're with Hillary. If you want Obama to be your imaginary hip black friend and you're young and you have no social needs, then he's cool." Following New Hampshire, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a Clinton supporter, said in response to a question about retail campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire: "You can't shuck and jive at a press conference. All those moves you can make with the press don't work when you're in someone's living room." This was interpreted by some in the media to be a racial slur against Obama, but there was no mention of Obama in the question or the answer.

There was also an attempt by Clinton partisans to create a rift between Obama's African-American supporters and members of the Latino community, which play an increasingly large role in states like Nevada and California. "The Hispanic voter--and I want to say this very carefully--has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates," Clinton pollster Sergio Bendixen told The New Yorker. A Democratic operative called this the "Do the Right Thing factor," after Spike Lee's famous film about tensions between blacks and Italians in Brooklyn.

It's difficult to know whether or not the Clinton campaign orchestrated or encouraged such statements, as part of a larger strategy, or whether surrogates, supporters and even campaign aides were just acting on their own. Either way, the comments about race came to represent a disturbing pattern.

The increasingly nasty simmer came to a boil in New Hampshire and the days after, when Clinton appeared to give President Lyndon Johnson more credit than Martin Luther King Jr. for the signing of the Voting Rights Act, a crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. Clinton claimed that her words were twisted out of context; she meant that it took a sympathetic President to sign the act into law. Yet some prominent black politicians, like South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, argued that if not for the blood, sweat and tears of the civil rights movement, LBJ would never have had the political space to sign the law--a fact Hillary later acknowledged--and a fierce war of words broke out between the two campaigns and their supporters.

The discussion grew even more heated when Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, said the following while introducing Senator Clinton at a campaign stop in South Carolina: "As an African-American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues--when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood; I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book." After not so subtly injecting the subject of Obama's teenage drug use back into the campaign, Johnson continued: "That kind of campaign behavior does not resonate with me, or a guy that says, 'I want to be a reasonable, likable Sidney Poitier [in]'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.' " In a matter of minutes, Johnson, himself a controversial figure in the black community, managed to hurl a handful of racial stereotypes front and center into the campaign.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that "it's surprising that the Clinton campaign has been so aggressive in keeping the race issue alive." He postulated a few theories. "The charitable explanation would be that the Clintons are, in terms of their political position, simply disoriented," Robinson wrote. "They are accustomed to Bill Clinton's campaigns, in which African American support was pretty much assumed." Yet there were two less charitable theories as well. "It could be that the idea is to engage Obama in so much tit-for-tat combat that his image as a new kind of post-partisan politician is tarnished." Then Robinson came to the Sister Souljah proposition. "Is it possible that accusing Obama and his campaign of playing the race card might create doubt in the minds of the moderate, independent white voters who now seem so enamored of the young black senator?"

Indeed, after flinging mud at Obama for weeks, the Clintons turned the tables and claimed to be the victims of misguided, racially tinged attacks--coming from Obama! Bill alleged that the Obama campaign had called Hillary "a racist." Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights pioneer and Clinton supporter, cited "a deliberate, systematic attempt on the part of some people in the Obama camp to really fan the flame of race and really try to distort what Senator Clinton said." Added Charlie Rangel: "How race got into this thing is because Obama said 'race.'" (Rangel also accused Obama of writing about his adolescent drug experimentation in order to "sell books.")

The confrontation seemed to be helping neither candidate, which is likely why Obama called a truce and Clinton accepted. The hope is that from now on, as evidenced by the surprisingly civil debate in Nevada, the Democratic campaign will stay above the fray. But don't count on it. Hillary hasn't had a "Sister Souljah" moment, but she also might not need one. Courting African-American voters, in South Carolina and elsewhere, and accusing the Obama campaign of playing the race card while employing racial arguments against Obama--by her campaign and by unscripted surrogates--could be seen as a textbook example of Clinton-style triangulation.

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