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Clinton, Crying Foul -- or Craftily Playing the Game?

Bill and Hillary Clinton last month. The former president has charged that his wife's opponent Barack Obama is getting a soft ride from the media.
Bill and Hillary Clinton last month. The former president has charged that his wife's opponent Barack Obama is getting a soft ride from the media. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

In case anyone doubted that Bill Clinton still harbors considerable resentment toward the press, it bubbled to the surface last week.

He was, quite understandably, promoting his wife's candidacy. His chief mission, therefore, was to rough up Barack Obama. But his decision to rip news organizations for not reporting on what he sees as inconsistencies in Obama's record on Iraq raises an intriguing question.

Have the media failed to adequately scrutinize the Illinois senator's stance on Iraq? Or was the former president simply trying to prod the press into carrying the campaign's water on an argument that Hillary Clinton herself has not raised?

"It is wrong," Bill Clinton said Monday in New Hampshire, "that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war in every year, enumerating the years -- and never got asked one time, not once, 'Well, how could you say that, when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution; you said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war . . . and there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since?' . . .

"Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

Obama has long contrasted his 2002 opposition to the war, when he was an Illinois legislator, with Clinton's Senate vote to authorize the war. Hillary Clinton aides want the press to highlight Obama's history on the issue because they fear their candidate will be branded as negative if she does so.

Bill Clinton was referring to a July 2004 New York Times piece that said Obama "declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time. 'But, I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports,' Mr. Obama said. 'What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made.' '' So "I don't know" was just a caveat.

The next day, the Chicago Tribune quoted Obama as saying: "There's not much of a difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage."

But the media haven't totally ignored this. On "Meet the Press" in November, Tim Russert asked Obama to explain both quotes. Obama replied that during the 2004 convention, "it probably was the wrong time for me to be making a strong case against our party's nominees' decisions when it came to Iraq." A month earlier, CNN's Candy Crowley asked Obama about the 2004 comments. In March 2007, The Washington Post covered the issue when Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, raised it at a forum.

Beyond that, a front-page Post story last September said Obama "tempered his rhetoric and his opposition once he arrived in the Capitol, rejecting timetables for withdrawal and backing war funding bills." A front-page Times piece early last year said that "the level of his criticism lowered" after Obama came to Washington.

Other media mentions have been spotty, however, fueling the argument that journalists aren't taking the same magnifying glass to his record that they apply to just about everything Clinton does.

"Given that Senator Obama has put forward his 2002 position, we would have expected the media to look into the comment he made in 2004 that his views on Iraq were about the same as George Bush's," Penn says. "We think it's up to the media to look at everybody's record. Because that didn't seem to happen, we're now in a phase where we're talking about our record and his."


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