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"Oppo Piece" -- or Just an Off-Base, Ad Hominem Attack From a Clinton Advisor?

12/13/2007 01:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sean Wilentz is a fine scholar, and I have genuine respect for his work. When I devoted three sentences in a 600-word piece to some recent quotes he made regarding Barack Obama, I had no idea it would unleash a fusillade of insults, slurs, and distortions that made his original comments about progressive Democrats sound benign -- and would reflect so badly on the team he so prominently serves.

First, he puts words in my mouth to suggest I've made a false accusation. Then he says I'm an Obama "hitman" (I don't support Obama or any candidate) who makes "phony and infantile distinctions" (ones I explicitly refused to make.) I'm a "perfectionist poseur," too. But keep reading - he saves the best for last.

If I had really written what Wilentz says I wrote, I'd owe him an apology. As it is, he owes me one -- but I'm not holding my breath. As for the Clinton campaign, I've heard about their rumored "oppo attacks." I don't know if this is one such attack, but I began to wonder when Wilentz said decisively my work is being posted on Obama websites. I didn't know that, so why would a Princeton prof -- unless someone was feeding him info?

But there's no direct evidence for that (and I've asked the Clinton campaign to verify it's not true.) If this is Wilentz's rant alone, the campaign should distance itself from its more off-target and eccentric statements.

Let's start with that alleged "accusation." After quoting a fellow Clinton supporter's scathing statements about "self-righteous" idealists, I cited Wilentz' comments during the same week describing idealistic Democrats as "beautiful losers." I went on to write:

I began to wonder: In a campaign as well-known for message discipline as this one, could this represent a deliberate theme? ... Does this tendency in the Clinton campaign represent a deliberate strategy? Or does it reflect a mixture of contempt, hostility, and frustration ... ? (Emphases mine.)

Yet in his response, Wilentz said that I "charge(d) that (his) recent interview ... was part of a coordinated campaign." As you can see, I specifically said that was only one of two equally troubling possibilities. The comments that follow strongly suggest that at least in Wilentz's case my second hypothesis -- "contempt, hostility, and frustration" -- was correct.

I also said this in my original piece:

We all understand real life, negotiation, and the many compromises that make up daily existence. Many of us face the same issues in our own lives ...

Yet Wilentz says "Eskow draws an infantile and phony distinction between 'pragmatism' and 'idealism'" - which is the exact opposite of what I actually wrote. I said that I, like many others, make compromises every day. Does that sound like the "self-righteous perfectionist appeal" Wilentz describes?

But he isn't even warmed up yet. Wilentz goes on to say that "Eskow's false accusation is a projection of his own role as a regular hitman for the Obama campaign, which instantly posts his negative pieces about Hillary Clinton."

Wilentz (or an "oppo researcher," if one was involved) did another sloppy job here. While I have been critical of Sen. Clinton's campaign, I published a piece two weeks ago called "In Fairness to Hillary" that pointed to her essentially progressive voting record. I wrote another this morning called "How Hillary Can Turn Things Around." And in my alleged "Obama hit man" piece, I wrote this: "One would think that some level of idealism continues to guide Sen. Clinton and her supporters." If that's Wilentz's idea of a "hit man," there are some serious gaps in his historical understanding of the term.

And while as a health policy analyst I prefer Obama's "no mandate" approach, I've criticized the Senator from Illinois too.

Whether or not it's one man's work, Wilentz' piece seems to reflect public perceptions and reports about how the Clinton camp thinks: You're either unequivocally for us, or you're an enemy. And if you're an enemy, you' must be an Obama hit man. It's a tawdry way to treat the people - and the party - that your candidate looks to for support.

Wilentz goes on to attack Obama as a false idealist for two endless paragraphs, assuming (based on his false assumption about my loyalties) that by discrediting Obama he discredits me. There's no need for me to rehash his diatribe, since the Obama/Clinton conflict is not my fight and Wilentz says nothing new or interesting on the topic. But I will make a comment about health policy: Wilentz repeats the Clinton talking point about Obama's plan leaving "15 million Americans uninsured" - but there is no research to support that number.

I doubt Wilentz even knows where his campaign came up with this figure, but I'll clue him in so he can be ready for his next ad hominem attack: A fine journalist named Jonathan Cohn, who wrote a very good book called Sick, made a very rough guess ,based on previously published reports and some analyst's assumptions. That's it. There's no data to support the figure. The difference in uninsured between the Clinton and Obama programs could be far less (or far more, for that matter.) Wilentz is is simply repeating numbers he's been fed and doesn't really understand.

But as I've said, Wilentz saves his best move for last. I had written that the Clinton campaign was correct to say that "the perfect should not be the enemy of the good," but then added that "the opposite is also true." Wilentz reaches a fever pitch over this : "The ignorance here (he writes of my 'perfect/good' statement) is frightening because that slogan or something like it has lurked behind every totalitarian government of modern times."

Get it? People like me (and you, if you're think Hillary's compromised too much on war issues) are laying the groundwork for totalitarianism. And this is in reaction to my having written the following:

Reality will always be with us, and sometimes we have to settle for the best we can get. But sometimes we do get ... the 'perfect' outcome - if we have the guts to dream, and to allow others to dream.

Apparently that's incipient fascism to Wilentz. Nice people in this Clinton crowd, huh?

I am asking a contact in the Clinton campaign if they will distance themselves from Wilentz's piece and confirm they didn't assist Wilentz with it. They deserve the benefit of the doubt until then.

As for Wilentz himself, he's confirming the worst suspicions many people have about the Clinton team: that they hold themselves in excessive (and perhaps undue) high regard, with a corresponding contempt for people of different views and approaches. There are any number of terms to describe that kind of person, but "pragmatist" isn't the first one that comes to mind.