As I wrote in my previous post, I have been appalled and dismayed at how the media have glibly mis-characterized Bill Clinton's "fairytale" comments as being about anything other than Barack Obama's position on the Iraq war, which was clearly the context in which the comment was made. Despite that, the media, commentators, the Obama campaign and now Michelle Obama, explicitly in a televised speech, have mis-characterized that comment to imply (nay, flat-out say) that Clinton called Obama himself a "fairytale," as well as his message of hope and redemption for disenfranchised minorities.
This would be fine if he had said that. BUT HE DIDN'T. So leaving aside the merits of what he did say regarding the Iraq war (which Obama has disputed), the fact remains: The media, TV commentators, the Obama campaign and now Michelle Obama - a very smart woman who has to know exactly what she is doing - is perpetuating that misinterpretation in order to imply that the Clintons are trying to tamp down on the African-American dream.
This is not an exaggeration. Here are Michelle Obama's remarks, verbatim, from her speech tonight:
Sometimes we feel it's better not to try at all than to try and fail. These are complicated emotions, left in our heads and hearts from years of struggle, emotions we must face if we're going to overcome as a community if we want to lift ourselves up. We must do it in the face of those who will attempt to play on those emotions for our own purposes, to discourage us from believing what is possible...to dismiss this moment as an illusion, as a fairytale.
I like Michelle Obama a lot, and I consider her a woman of integrity, so this bothers me -- because it is NOT WHAT CLINTON SAID. And it is certainly not what the Clintons are seeking to do, to keep black people -- or any people! -- from having hopes or aspirations for the future. Come on. That is so patently unfair and plays to the basest of emotions: fear. Isn't that what Obama spoke so eloquently against in his speech after Iowa? Is that really how his campaign wants to whip up support in South Carolina, by whipping up a fervor against the Clintons - on false grounds?
Okay, it's here that I can hear you say, "but what about the Martin Luther King comment? What about 'shuck and jive?'" So fine, let's address this. Sometime late last week, the Obama campaign quietly released a memo detailing five examples in which "either Clinton, her husband Bill, or campaign surrogates, are said to have made comments that could be interpreted as racially insensitive." Okay then, let's look.
One of these is the fairytale thing - clearly about Iraq, not race. Next is Andrew Cuomo's "shuck and jive" comment — in the context of discussing all the candidates as a group, generally, having nothing to do with Obama (and see this list of generic colloquial uses of the phrase, and also how it's equated to "hem and haw" here on HuffPost from 10/06). Inadvertent slip or diabolical insinuation of racially-charged phrase into conversation designed to make the world call him a racist? Right. I'm for the benefit of the doubt where this is concerned. Next there is the assertion that "Bill Clinton implied that Hillary Clinton is stronger than Nelson Mandela." Well actually, here is the FULL context, left out of the Obama memo: Clinton said that he's met Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin, loved them both, but if it came down to it he'd STILL pick Hillary as the steely-eyed person to have in his corner. Guilty of hyperbole? Absolutely. Guilty of racism and anti-Semitism? Jake Tapper didn't seem to think so when he reported it last Tuesday, because he didn't mention it, just that Mandela and Rabin were pretty tough dudes. Okay, three down. New paragraph.
Next we have the drug use incident. First, Bill Shaheen wonders darkly if Obama's youthful drug-dabbling will be trumpeted by the Republicans. It's a matter of public record — made public by Obama himself — but still, it's seen as a dirty trick and the Clinton campaign distanced itself from the mention. Then Mark Penn and Joe Trippi are on Hardball, and in mentioning the incident Penn specifies the drug use to cocaine. Trippi leaps into frame and says accusingly "You said cocaine!" thereby drawing attention to it loudly, repeating and emphasizing it himself. It has always boggled my mind why everyone slammed Mark Penn and not Joe Trippi for this. Anything Clinton stood to gain by a so-called Obama smear would have accrued to Edwards' benefit. But I have also always been confused because Obama copped to the use himself, holding himself up as an example of someone who'd overcome trouble in youth to go on to great things. I have scratched my head over this before.
Finally we have the "Martin Luther King was all right, but he didn't pass legislation" comment. Boneheaded and tone deaf? For sure. Something that only someone really really wonky trying to make a very prosaic point might say and not realize they were being boneheaded and tone deaf? I dunno. I mean, it's really boneheaded and tone-deaf. Even more so the JFK comment that he was assassinated before he could effect legislation. Boneheaded! Like, cringeworthy. But not technically wrong. Movements effect change, force hands. That's what MLK did, in a movement that reached JFK, and then LBJ. But still....BONEHEADED. Of all the comments, this is the only one that I think has any real teeth. But even so, boneheaded does not equal racist. There's a big benefit of the doubt to be offered here. I'm sorry, before I am willing to impute hateful, racist motivations to anyone, I need more evidence than this.
Look how much effort is expended trying to put a genie like this back in the bottle. It's probably too late — the media were too careless about pushing the "fairytale" misrepresentation early on, and are now too careless about clarifying it (it's different saying 'Bill Clinton says he was misconstrued' than 'We've examined the record and he was misconstrued').
As for the Obama campaign, the media should call them on the crucial context they fail to include. Why edit out the Rabin reference from Bill Clinton's remarks to focus on Mandela? Why continue to cite the fairytale ref when it was clearly not meant to implicate race? Do we really want "could be construed as racially insensitive" to be the new tripwire, especially with such flimsy evidence? It's just such a terrible charge to make, the bar for making it needs to be much, much higher. Absent real George Allen-like evidence, it seems to be unfairly made.
That is all I'm gunning for here, folks — fairness, accuracy, adherence to a common standard — that's it. I think it's incumbent on the media, when characterizing Bill Clinton's "fairytale" remark, to get it right and put it in context. I think it's incumbent on Michelle Obama, when refuting that comment in public, to refute the statement made, not the misrepresented version that has been unfairly propagated. I think it's incumbent on the Obama campaign to be very careful when asking the open-ended question (so favored by Fox!) in asking the uber-loaded question: "Is Clinton using a race-baiting strategy against Obama?" (and, btw, check out the provenance of that question, "passed on" to Politico's Ben Smith by Donna Brazile, who also happen to "pass on" five examples of why that might be so). I think it's incumbent on the media to keep an eye on how the facts are presented in the process, lest they somehow change. That's how it's supposed to work in the reality-based community.
This is how I see it, and I fear for a campaign where words are suddenly so potentially loaded that no one dares utter them unvetted. Can that be good for the discourse? Is that really how race is discussed? Is the threshold for crying foul really that low?
As for the media: You guys -- we guys -- have no excuse. It's pathetic to beat yourself up for reporting consistent, across-the-board poll numbers but not even bother to check what Bill Clinton may have said before you paraphrase him. Those are the standards that matter -- and holding both campaigns accountable to them, equally. I don't believe that should be a fairytale.