By Anne E. Kornblut and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 14, 2008
COLUMBIA, S.C., Jan. 13 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton defended her recent remarks on civil rights Sunday, as Sen. Barack Obama weighed in on the controversy for the first time, describing Clinton's earlier comments about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. as "unfortunate" and "ill-advised."
Obama had previously tried to sidestep direct engagement in the debate over race. But the recent controversy has touched a nerve with many African Americans, including some sympathetic to the Clintons, and Obama chose to address it Sunday.
The primary source of the debate is a comment Monday from the New York Democrat: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," she said, adding that "it took a president to get it done." Critics read that as playing down King's importance in the civil rights movement. Clinton said Sunday that the Obama campaign was "deliberately distorting this."
Asked whether he had taken offense to Clinton's remarks, the Illinois Democrat said he had not been the one to raise the subject.
"Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark, about King and Lyndon Johnson. I didn't make the statement," Obama said in a conference call with reporters. "I haven't remarked on it. And she, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King's role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act. She is free to explain that. But the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous."
At the same time, a prominent Clinton ally, Robert L. Johnson, appeared to attempt to revive the issue of Obama's admitted past drug use.
Introducing Clinton at an event in Columbia, Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, said both Clintons "have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood -- and I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book."
In "Dreams From My Father," Obama wrote that he used marijuana and cocaine as a young man. Johnson later tried to back away from his remarks, and the Clinton campaign issued a statement saying he was simply referring to Obama's days as a community organizer. Johnson said that to read anything else into his statement was "simply irresponsible and incorrect."
"His tortured explanation doesn't hold up against his original statement," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton. "And it's troubling that neither the campaign nor Senator Clinton . . . is willing to condemn it."
Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod added: "I don't see why this is so much different from what Billy Shaheen did in New Hampshire," referring to Clinton's state co-chairman. Shaheen resigned last month after suggesting that Republicans would target Obama with questions such as "Did you sell [drugs] to anyone?"
Clinton defended her remark about King, made the day before the New Hampshire primary, in a sometimes contentious appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday morning. She said she was responding to a speech Obama made comparing himself to both John F. Kennedy and to King, and she elaborated on her view of King's role as a change agent.
"Dr. King had been on the front lines. He had been leading a movement," Clinton said. "But Dr. King understood, which is why he made it very clear, that there has to be a coming to terms of our country politically in order to make the changes that would last for generations beyond the iconic, extraordinary speeches that he gave. That's why he campaigned for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That's why he was there when those great pieces of legislation were passed. Does he deserve the lion's share of the credit for moving our country and moving our political process? Yes, he does. But he also had partners who were in the political system."
She also complained that her remarks had been taken out of context. "And I think it is such an unfair and unwarranted attempt to, you know, misinterpret and mischaracterize what I've said," she said, at times interrupting moderator Tim Russert.
She stood by former president Bill Clinton's observation last week that the central tenet of Obama's campaign is "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," saying it referred only to Obama's Iraq war position and not his standing as a candidate. Some African American commentators have pressed her to explain her husband's statement.
Clinton argued that Obama has failed to follow up his 2002 antiwar rhetoric with votes; he voted, she said, for the same Iraq war funding that she has supported.
"Look, if you are running for president based primarily on a speech you gave in 2002 and speeches you have given since, most notably at the Democratic convention, then I think it is fair to say we need to know more beyond the words," Clinton said. "By 2004, Tim, by the summer of 2004, Senator Obama said he wasn't sure how he would have voted. And when you asked him about that, he said, well, he didn't want to say something that could have hurt our nominees, Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards. Well, the fact is, he's always said he doesn't take positions for political reasons. That is a political explanation. If he was against the war in 2002, he should've strongly spoke out in 2004."
The stated purpose of the conference call in which Obama addressed Clinton's comments was to announce an endorsement from Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), the latest in a series of endorsements that Obama has rolled out since his second-place finish in New Hampshire.
Later in the day, another Obama ally, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), spoke with reporters in defense of Obama's antiwar record while challenging Clinton's assertion on "Meet the Press" that the 2002 authorization vote, which Clinton supported, was intended as a means for sending inspectors back into Iraq and was not tantamount to giving President Bush a free hand to invade the country.
"Those of us voting on it that October night took it very seriously," Durbin said. The invasion of Iraq as a consequence of the vote "was a very realistic option," he said.
For the first time, former senator John Edwards (N.C.) also weighed in on a dispute that is rapidly consuming the dialogue among the top three Democratic presidential candidates in the most diverse campaign in history. All three are dueling for votes in South Carolina, where the Democratic primary is set to take place on Jan. 26 -- and where the party's electorate is about half African American.
"As someone who grew up in the segregated South, I feel an enormous amount of pride when I see the success that Senator Barack Obama is having in this campaign," Edwards said during an appearance at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Sumter.
Then Edwards turned the "fairy tale" remark back on its originator, continuing: "I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change came not through the Reverend Martin Luther King, but through a Washington politician. I fundamentally disagree with that. Those who believe that real change starts with Washington politicians have been in Washington too long -- and are living in a fairy tale."
Kornblut reported from Washington. Staff writers Shailagh Murray in Washington and Peter Slevin in Nevada contributed to this report.