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Memo From a Poison Penn

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, August 16, 2008

Say you find yourself seated on the train behind two white supremacists who are beside themselves over the possibility that Barack Obama could become America's first black president.

They are so fired up, they fail to notice you.

The men are discussing the urgent need to derail Obama's candidacy.

The obvious strategist of the two says that Obama's defeat can be brought about by hitting him hard, where it hurts the most.

We've got to launch an attack, he declares, on Obama's "lack of American roots." Paint him as a guy with an exotic background who's present in mainstream society but isn't really a part of it.

He asserts, with a snicker, that Obama has "a very strong weakness." We'll drive home the argument, he says, that Obama's "roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited."

Our job, he goes on, is to get "most Americans -- the invisible Americans" so agitated about Obama that they become eager to stick up for what they regard as their American heritage.

We can do that, he declares with confidence, by convincing folks that Obama "is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values."

The other white supremacist, getting the point, chimes in: Yeah, and because Obama's black, let's put up a candidate against him to "contest the black vote at every opportunity. Keep him pinned down there."

We must, the men agree, keep charging that Obama is not steeped in "basic American values."

That, dear reader, is the way virulent hate purveyors will seek to bring down Barack Obama: by portraying him as un-American and, oh yes, "unelectable."

To be fair, these anti-Obama sentiments cannot be attributed to two white supremacists riding on a train.

The words quoted above belong to Mark Penn, the top Democratic strategist and pollster for most of Hillary Clinton's run for the White House. They appear in a strategic campaign review memo, unearthed recently by the Atlantic magazine, that Penn sent to Clinton on March 19, 2007.

Let us note that Hillary Clinton did not take Penn's advice, though she continues her association with him.

Clinton did make much of her Middle American birth into the middle class, and she did pretend to be as one with the white working class, as Penn instructed in his strategy memo.

But she did not launch a frontal attack on Obama's life in Hawaii or on his diverse background or charge -- as Penn had urged -- that Obama is not "at his center fundamentally American."

So why bring this up now? It's not exactly a new line of attack against Obama. Check out the cable channels.

Also, when it comes to hitting below the belt, Mark Penn has plenty of company.

A widely distributed e-mail I received last month from "Sol" adopted Penn's "lack of American roots" libel against Obama, but more crudely.

Sol was taken aback by Obama's assertion that "we are now a nation of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists. . ."

"I never thought," wrote Sol, "I'd see the day that I'd hear something like that from a presidential candidate in this Country."

"To think our forefathers fought and died for the right for our nation to be a Christian nation -- and to have this 'wannabe raghead' say with pride that 'we are no longer a Christian nation.' "

"How far will the good people of the USA let these 'minorities' tell us what we can and cannot do?"

"With God's help, He will still take control of this Nation and we can show this 'anti-Christ' and all his boot-lickers . . ."

Okay, it's easy to dismiss Sol as another misguided hater on the religious right.

It's not so easy, however, to look past Penn.

He's a longtime Clinton insider, the chief executive of the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller and an adviser to Fortune 500 chieftains. He's accorded respectability, access to the powerful and a fat bank account.

We have, thanks to Penn's own hand, a glimpse into his ethics and values. We can see how he would exploit heritage, background and class and use misleading and offensive characterizations in his work. We understand how he would go about challenging and demeaning Obama's American identity by suggesting that the Hawaii-born, Columbia- and Harvard-educated U.S. senator from Illinois is not American enough.

Cynically, he would make Obama out to be a threat to American values and culture.

It's clear from the memo exactly what type of politics Penn would practice.

What is unclear, though, in an increasingly diverse and multicultural America, where merit and not lineage or class should be deciding factors, is why the salons of Washington, the boardrooms of corporate America and the doors of foreign governments are open to such a divider and fear-exploiter as Mark Penn.

It's fair to ask about his roots in basic American values. Why do business with him?

kingc@washpost.com

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