Posted on Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Try this political pop quiz. Can you identify the presidential candidate
promising “a fresh start after a season of cynicism... a president who
can unite this nation, a president who puts aside the endless partisan
bickering that seems to gridlock our nation’s capital, a president who
puts the people first, a president who lifts this nation’s spirits”?
Another clue: “I want you to understand that I can’t win without you.
When you go out there and tell the folks where we stand... when it comes
to bringing people together to get things done and you tell them that
the core of this campaign is the inherent trust in the American people,
I believe it doesn’t matter what political party they’re in. They’re
going to come our way.” OK, it’s a trick question. The candidate’s not
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, but Texas Gov. George W. Bush as quoted by
The New York Times in November 2000. Actually, “folks” should be a dead
giveaway. It’s what poker players call Bush’s tell, a sure sign he’s
blowing smoke. But yes, Obama 2008 sounds awfully like Bush 2000,
especially when he wafts into high rhetorical mode, all moonbeams and
lofty emotions. Exactly what compromises he’ll make with the guns, God
and gays, bigger-wars/smallertaxes GOP hard-liners come 2009—the same
ones circulating e-mails claiming he’s a covert Islamic
extremist—Obama’s not saying.
But no, I didn’t find Obama haughtily condescending toward Hillary
Rodham Clinton during the New Hampshire debate. People make too much of
these transitory moments. She’d pronounced him “likeable,” pretty much
forcing him to call her likeable back. I’d call his reaction one
professional’s wry acknowledgment of another’s smooth handling of a
Nor do I credit the rumor reported by the New York Post’s chronically
unreliable Page Six that Obama entered a Des Moines victory party to
Jay-Z’s misogynist rap, “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” He’d
have to be an idiot, and Obama’s not.
What, then, to make of the controversy over Clinton’s “racially tinged
comments,” as one Washington Post op-ed writer called them, words “that
could be taken” —my emphasis —“ as either insensitive or patronizing”?
Citing Obama’s relative lack of experience, Clinton made the
unexceptional point that it took LBJ’s political skills to turn Martin
Luther King Jr. ’s idealism into law.
Because Clinton’s words have been selectively edited, it’s worth quoting
them in full: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President
Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able
to get through Congress something that President [John F.] Kennedy was
hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a
president to get it done. That dream became a reality. The power of that
dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said,
‘We are going to do it,’ and actually got it accomplished. ’”
“In other words,” wrote Marjorie Valbrun in the Post, “‘I have a dream’
is a nice sentiment, but King couldn’t make it reality. It took a more
practical and, of course, white president, Lyndon Johnson, to get blacks
to the mountaintop.... Clinton managed to insult a beloved black leader
in her eager attempt to insult a rising black leader.”
Except that King himself once reportedly told LBJ, “It is ironic, Mr.
President, that after a century, a Southern white President would help
lead the way toward the salvation of the Negro.” Grow up, Ms. Valbrun.
Likewise, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert accused Clinton of
“taking cheap shots at, of all people, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr.” He further accused Bill Clinton of insultingly characterizing
Obama’s campaign as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” Virtually
every “mainstream” publication and TV network jumped in. Here’s
Newsweek’s formulation of the racial insult that Bill Clinton “appeared”
to deliver, “a remark that infuriated many African-Americans. ‘When has
“ black” and “fairy tale” ever been mentioned in the same sentence?’
asked Todd Boyd, professor of African-American and Critical Studies at
the University of Southern California. ” When, indeed? You can
scrutinize the former president’s entire 500-word statement about
Obama’s shifting positions on Iraq without finding any allusion
whatsoever to race. Not one. It’s online at mediamatters.org. On “Meet
the Press,” Hillary Clinton was confronted with video clips artfully
cropped to conceal the context of both her remarks and her husband’s.
She defended herself well, but that’s not the point. Whatever his
faults, I believe that Bill Clinton stood up for civil rights in
Arkansas back when it was physically dangerous and his wife was inspired
by King as a high school girl. Their reward was the insanely scurrilous
videotape, “The Clinton Chronicles,” partly narrated by Arkansas’ last
diehard segregationist, Justice Jim Johnson. Leave this stuff to Rush
Limbaugh and Al Sharpton. Democrats indulge in racial demagoguery at
their peril. It will surely backfire in the general election.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.