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Hillary Clinton On Southern Working Class Whites In 1995: "Screw 'Em"

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During the past week, Sen. Hillary Clinton has presented herself as a working class populist, the politician in touch with small town sentiments, compared to the elitism of her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama.

But a telling anecdote from her husband's administration shows Hillary Clinton's attitudes about the "lunch-bucket Democrats" are not exactly pristine.

In January 1995, as the Clintons were licking their wounds from the 1994 congressional elections, a debate emerged at a retreat at Camp David. Should the administration make overtures to working class white southerners who had all but forsaken the Democratic Party? The then-first lady took a less than inclusive approach.

"Screw 'em," she told her husband. "You don't owe them a thing, Bill. They're doing nothing for you; you don't have to do anything for them."

The statement -- which author Benjamin Barber witnessed and wrote about in his book, "The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House" -- was prompted by another speaker raising the difficulties of reaching "Reagan Democrats." It stands in stark contrast to the attitude the New York Democrat has recently taken on the campaign trail, in which she has presented herself as the one candidate who understands the working-class needs.

"I don't think [Obama] really gets it that people are looking for a president who stands up for you and not looks down on you," she said this week.

But those who were at the event say the 1995 episode fits into her larger viewpoint. As Harry Boyte, the director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Democracy and Citizenship who was at the retreat, told The Huffington Post: "[Hillary Clinton] sees herself as the champion of the oppressed, but there is always a kind of good guy versus bad guy mentality. The comment before that was that 'the Reagan Democrats are our enemies and they weren't on our side,' and she was agreeing with that comment. She said we should write them off: screw them."

A spokesperson for Clinton said the quote was taken out of context and did not reflect her true political philosophy. "This quote differs from the recollection of others who were in the room at the time this comment was allegedly made," said Jay Carson. "To be clear, that's not how she felt then and it's not how she feels now, and the proof is in how she has lived her life, the work she has done and the policies she has pushed and pursued over the last 35 years."

Asked to produce a witness who would say that Clinton had been misquoted, Carson wrote: "So, you've got two guys we've barely heard of remembering a verbatim quote from 13 years ago?... Sounds totally and completely reliable."

(Carson eventually put me in touch with a source who claimed to not have heard the quote -- see below). Barber's book was published in 2001.

Perhaps even more telling than Hillary Clinton's proclamation, however, were the words from her husband that followed. As reported by Barber, Clinton "stepped in, calm and judicious, not irritated, as if rehearsing an old but honorable debate he had been having with his wife for decades."

I know how you feel. I understand Hillary's sense of outrage. It makes me mad too. Sure, we lost our base in the South; our boys voted for Gingrich. But let me tell you something. I know these boys. I grew up with them. Hardworking, poor, white boys, who feel left out, feel that our reforms always come at their expense. Think about it, every progressive advance our country has made since the Civil War has been on their backs. They're the ones asked to pay the price of progress. Now, we are the party of progress, but let me tell you, until we find a way to include these boys in our programs, until we stop making them pay the whole price of liberty for others, we are never going to unite our party, never really going to have change that sticks.

If the tone and tenor of the above sounds familiar, it's because the message, Boyte says, is remarkably similar to what Obama was trying to convey in his now controversial remarks about small town America.

"Well, yeah, absolutely," said Boyte, when asked if Obama and Bill Clinton were expressing the same political viewpoint (Boyte said he and his organization are neutral in the presidential race). "I think Obama's better-or-worse versions of this have always been that people are complicated. It comes from an organizing perspective. You don't write off people, everyone is complicated. It just depends on the issue. And that's what Bill Clinton was saying. He was a sentimental populist."

Not to be lost in all this, as Boyte notes, is that Hillary Clinton has consistently been a "champion for the people who were helpless and powerless." But there is a political component to the mindset.

"Hillary Clinton has a very strong customer view: the citizen is the customer and the government the vendor," said Boyte. "You can see it in Mark Penn's frame. In fact, last Christmas she had an ad of herself writing checks to different groups."

Update: Jake Tapper, over at ABC, had highlighted the "screw em" quote back in October. His article was in reference to comments Sen. Clinton had made about Mississippi. Considering events this past week, the issue has taken on increased relevance.

Late Update: The Clinton campaign put me in touch with Don Baer, President Clinton's speech writer at the time, who had attended the same meeting. He says: "I don't remember anything along those lines, at all. And I certainly don't remember Senator Clinton saying anything like that... they have their recollections of that, that is their business. The conversation, from my perspective, was moderated in tone."

He did not, it should be noted, directly challenge the interpretations of Barber and Boyte.

Baer's comments came at roughly the same moment that The New Republic published a blog post by Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College, who was also at the retreat and says he too heard the quote. Noting Carson's remark -- "So, you've got two guys we've barely heard of remembering a verbatim quote from 13 years ago?... Sounds totally and completely reliable" -- Wolfe writes: "Make that three. I was there. I hope people have heard of me. And Barber and Boyte have it right."