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James Clyburn Happy to Play His Familiar Part Once More


Once again -- and for the last time -- the Democratic primary campaign has moved into a southern state, North Carolina, with a large African American population as well as a considerable university and college town liberal vote. Once again, the Barack Obama campaign and its supporters, fresh from a stinging defeat, are trying to stir up false accusations that Hillary Clinton and her campaign have cynically injected racial animosities into the campaign.

The latest round of charges about the Clintons have come from a familiar source, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking black leader in Congress. In January, after the Obama campaign suffered stunning defeats in New Hampshire and Nevada, Rep. Clyburn, although nominally uncommitted, joined a chorus of concerted complaint about Hillary Clinton's supposed denigration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contributions to the 1964 Civil Rights Act because of her observation that President Lyndon Johnson had played a crucial part in guiding its passage. (Clinton's actual remarks, rarely reported, praised King enormously and were historically accurate.)

Clyburn then jumped on flimsy accusations that former President Bill Clinton had supposedly made subtle racial remarks by calling Obama's claim to unwavering opposition to administration policy in Iraq a "fairy tale," and by likening Obama's eventual victory in South Carolina to those of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. (The first had nothing whatsoever to do with race: Obama had said in 2004, 2005 and 2006 that he didn't know how he would have voted on Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq because as a state senator he had no access to the intelligence, and Obama voted consistently for war funding as a U.S. senator. On the second matter -- again, rarely reported in full -- Bill Clinton's remark was delivered as part of his praise of Obama's campaign in every state, and Jackson himself publicly deemed it inoffensive.) Clinton had apparently done his wife's campaign a lot of good with his work in New Hampshire and Nevada; but the targeted attack on him had the double effect of marginalizing him while advancing the race-baiter charges.

The Obama campaign had already begun injecting race into the campaign, notably on the morning after the New Hampshire primary, when its national co-chair, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, went on national television to accuse Senator Clinton of false emotion and racial intent in her tearful description of her commitment to public service. "Those tears also have to be analyzed," said Obama's co-chair. "They have to be looked at very, very carefully in light of Katrina, in light of other things that Mrs. Clinton did not cry for." And then Jackson added, disclosing his underlying political agenda: "Particularly as we head to South Carolina where 45% of African-Americans who participate in the Democratic contest." Clyburn immediately followed up, upping the ante by ripping into Bill Clinton and telling him to "chill." At the same time, an official Obama South Carolina campaign memo surfaced, which specified innocuous statements by Clinton supporters that could be twisted into race-baiting remarks -- including the wild claim, built from distorted quotations that Bill Clinton had said his wife was "stronger" than Nelson Mandela.

The charges leveled at the Clintons by Clyburn and others in South Carolina began what has become a completely predictable pattern among Obama, his campaign, and their supporters. First, Obama loses primary campaigns in key states which he had either expected to win (as in New Hampshire and then Nevada) or had worked desperately hard to win (as in Pennsylvania, where he outspent Hillary Clinton by as much as three-to-one). Then, as the campaign moved southward -- to Louisiana and then the "Potomac" primaries following Super Tuesday, to Mississippi following the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries, and now to North Carolina -- come the furious but false charges, reported in the press as undeniable truths, that the Clinton campaign has indulged in mean-spirited race baiting, as a prelude to upcoming contests in southern states.

Some of these claims have turned out to be hoaxes, such as the release by the campaign, in the aftermath of Super Tuesday, of a supposedly scurrilous photograph of Obama in native African garb. Posted on the Drudge Report and lifted, as it turned out, from another right-wing website, Free Republic, where it initially surfaced, the appearance of the photograph was nevertheless blamed on the Clinton campaign by Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe who called it "the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we've seen from either party in this election." (Obama himself, after dismissing the incident in a public debate with Hillary Clinton, returned to the accusation while on the stump with black voters in Mississippi.)

On other occasions, Obama suggested to mostly black audiences, in coded racial terms, that the Clintons were attempting to confuse them with their criticisms of him. Before the South Carolina, "Potomac" and Mississippi primaries, Obama cheerfully lifted the "hoodwinked, bamboozled" rant from the Spike Lee film Malcolm X, in order to convey to black voters that, whatever he might say about a "post-racial" campaign, racial solidarity against white traducers was crucial to his effort. Denzel Washington, playing Malcolm X, says: "I'm gonna tell you like it really is. Every election year these politicians are sent up here to pacify us! They're sent here and set up here by the white man! I say and I say it again, you've been had. You've been took. You've been HOODWINKED, BAMBOOZLED, led astray, run amok." Barack Obama repeatedly echoed: "Don't be hoodwinked! Don't be bamboozled!"

Other claims have either been either outright fabrications or hysterical distortions: false charges leveled by one popular pro-Obama website, Daily Kos, that the Clinton campaign "blackened" their candidate to make his look menacing by purposely darkening a another photograph of him; and the strained Geraldine Ferraro fracas, in which an awkward remark buried in the Torrance, California Daily Breeze was trumpeted nationally by prominent Obama supporters such as Keith Olbermann of MSNBC's Countdown into accusations said that the Clinton campaign had descended into the politics of a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke. Then there was the false claim by one of Obama's best known supporters in academia, Orlando Patterson of Harvard, published on the op-ed page of the New York Times, that there was no black child in Clinton's "3 a.m." television ad on national security, a supposedly racist move worthy of D. W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation -- when, in fact, there was a black child in that commercial.

Which brings us back to Representative Clyburn, on the eve of North Carolina, which some have called Obama's firewall state -- a state he must win convincingly in order to head off his latest slide in the primary race. Last week, Bill Clinton belatedly observed that the Obama campaign "played the race card on me" in South Carolina, and cited a conversation he had had with Jesse Jackson to prove his point. Clyburn jumped back in, getting the attention of The New York Times by charging that "black people are incensed" at Clinton and claiming that it is "an almost 'unanimous' view among African-Americans that Mr. and Mrs. Clinton are "committed to doing everything they possibly can to damage Obama to a point that he could never win." Clyburn may well be correct about perceptions of the Clintons among some black voters; but he simply hides how Obama, his campaign, and their supporters have willfully created that impression.

Remarkably, reports about the Clintons' alleged race-baiting have been reproduced so often and so uncritically in the press that they have attained the status of incontrovertible truth. Evidence and arguments to the contrary can expect either to be ignored (with their arguments dismissed, as Ryan Lizza recently and sarcastically did in The New Yorker, as "mysterious"). Or they can expect to be greeted by ad hominem attacks which do not engage the evidence, and which can even stray (as I have learned directly) into attacks on the author as a racist -- the sort who, back in 1860, sneered at Abraham Lincoln as a "Black Republican." There is no honest dialogue on this issue: only constant reiteration by Obama's supporters of the undeniable truth of the charges against the Clintons, and the personal disparaging of any who dare call the charges into question.

Yet, there are, to be sure, some stray signs that the press may be catching on to what is going on here. After Rep. Clyburn's latest tirade, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times -- who has until now been consistently anti-Clinton and pro-Obama -- raised an eyebrow in her column about Clyburn's endorsement of what Dowd called the "Tonya Harding conspiracy theory," that the Clintons and their supporters were out to destroy Obama by the foulest of means. And playing the race-baiter card runs the enormous risk of deepening the racial divide that will make it more difficult for Obama to appeal to white voters, as it has in the past.

But there may not be time for the Obama campaign to worry about that, given the Pennsylvania results, given the possible outcomes in Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky, and given the growing perception (deepened by the continuing outbursts by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) that Obama may not be electable in November. Incensing black voters in North Carolina -- as well as college and university liberals in the Chapel Hill-Durham area -- would be one way to gain the large majority that Obama needs to regain his footing. And so, yet again, the by now routine charges against the Clintons as race-baiters reappear -- with Representative Clyburn of neighboring South Carolina happy to play his by now familiar part once more.