The Racial Row That's Dividing the Democrats

Hillary Clinton was assailed for comments seen as diminishing King's civil rights role.
Hillary Clinton was assailed for comments seen as diminishing King's civil rights role. (By Jonathan Alcorn -- Bloomberg News)
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By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Herein lies the irony:

The first seriously viable black presidential candidate has largely avoided discussions of race, while the white candidate whose husband was affectionately called the "first black president" is being assailed by critics for using race as a negative touchstone in the campaign.

Race has always been an uncomfortable but inescapable part of America's political landscape, but not since the 1960s has it been injected into the presidential campaign so early, so fast and so furiously -- and by Democrats using it against each other. The strangeness of it goes even further, with the spectacle of black surrogates being deployed by the Clinton camp to lob criticism at a black presidential candidate. Yesterday, surrogates on both sides continued to wage what some see as a unseemly verbal war, and the invective has polarized opinions on all sides of the issue, as always happens when race and political campaigns mix.

Over the years, the politics of race has been seen through many prisms. In modern times, it's focused on the battle over integration in the 1950s and 1960s, over welfare queens (real or imagined) in the 1976 campaign, and the ugly specter of crime as personified by Willie Horton in the 1988 race.

But never have two candidates so seemingly committed to the same cause taken out after each other -- with supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton saying her opponent Sen. Barack Obama is "no Martin Luther King," as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) did yesterday, and Obama supporters accusing Clinton of race-baiting.

Some see it as supremely ironic that this fight has broken out in a historic presidential campaign in which both a woman and an African American are positioned to potentially break one of the hardest glass ceilings in American society.

Charles Ogletree, a prominent black scholar and Harvard law professor who taught Obama and his wife, Michelle, predicted that voters will ultimately ignore the sniping and vote for candidates on the basis of the message -- not how it's delivered.

"I think the Democratic Party is energized and there is a renewed faith in the system," he said. Saying that any discussion about race is "unfortunate," Ogletree said he is supporting Obama but has always liked the Clintons.

"Whether these comments are intentional or not, they are unhealthy because it creates a lot of emotions and moves people away from the issues. I can tell you this: Efforts to derail Barack won't work. He won't be drawn into a debate over whether he's not black enough or too black."

The back-and-forth has angered some leaders and scholars of the civil rights community, some of whom are skeptical about the Clinton campaign's claims that recent comments by Bill and Hillary Clinton or their surrogates have not been orchestrated.

Beyond that, activists and Democrats say it's offering ammunition to Republicans.

"Every time these people open their mouths and engage race, they are greasing the skids for the Republican Swift-boaters and reminding voters of the Democrats' indulgence of racial squabbling," said James Sleeper, a political science professor at Yale who has written extensively on racial politics. Sleeper said he has not yet decided whom he supports and does not believe Clinton has intentionally gone negative on the issue of race.

"Obama should not respond to any of this. . . . His message is so affirming, so elevating -- that is the civil rights movement at its best. "

The Clinton campaign has said that it is not trying to inject race into the discussion, but merely aiming to highlight the differences between Obama's soaring speeches and Clinton's experience. But some of the comments from surrogates have seemed personal.

The first shot came last month, when Billy Shaheen, co-chairman of Clinton's campaign, was forced to resign after telling a Washington Post reporter that Obama's youthful drug use could cause him a problem in a general election.

In the past week, the debate over who meant what became increasingly shrill: Clinton was assailed for comments seen as diminishing the Rev. Martin Luther's King's role in the civil rights movement when she said that "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act." When Bill Clinton called Obama's position on Iraq a "fairy tale," Obama allies accused him of subtly suggesting that Obama's candidacy itself was a fairy tale.

A Clinton adviser told Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland that Obama appeals to people who just want an "imaginary hip black friend." And a Clinton supporter, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, enraged Obama supporters when he said on talk radio, "You can't shuck and jive at a press conference." (Cuomo said his comments were taken out of context.)

But the battle reached a fever pitch over the weekend when Robert Johnson, the billionaire African American founder of the BET cable television network and a staunch Clinton supporter, made remarks widely seen as trying to bring attention again to Obama's youthful drug use. He told a crowd in South Carolina that while the Clintons were supporting black issues, "Obama was doing something in the neighborhood. I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book." Johnson said he was referring to Obama's community service.

"I'm trying to keep my joy -- and it's very difficult when the subtext becomes race. . . . They are wading in treacherous waters," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who is neutral on the candidates. Brazile said she did not believe that Obama was fueling the fight. "Obama does not do race at all -- he's the candidate of reconciliation," she said. "He doesn't do protests, he doesn't do victim politics. It's not in him. He's not relying on divisions to win this."

"A key question," says Sleeper, "is how is it that these candidates are so susceptible to whipping each other into a frenzy? Is this a card that can still be played? Obama's whole point is that we're beyond it."

Roger Wilkins, a civil rights expert and a historian at George Mason University, called Obama the first African American candidate who has a shot of being president and called comments coming from the Clinton camp "totally offensive" -- but not necessarily racial.

"What I think is that there is a resentment in the Clinton campaign. It's supposed to be her turn so it's 'Who is this upstart trying to take this away from us?' " said Wilkins, who supports Obama.

The outspoken Harlem activist Al Sharpton, who has not yet endorsed a candidate, said yesterday that Bill Clinton had agreed to be on his radio show today, the 79th anniversary of Martin Luther King's birth, to take calls from black voters for an hour, and that he hoped Obama will come on next. "What we need to do is rise about all the surrogates and sound bites, and we need to hear their programs, their plans," Sharpton said. "They're all trying to out-black-card the other."

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