How Dumb Do the Clintons Think We Are?

This weekend’s big flap was a coy statement made by BET founder Bob Johnson that seems to refer—scratch that, unmistakably refers— to Barack Obama’s admitted drug use. Here’s his quote:

And to me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who 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 the book –­ when they have been involved. [Video here .]

The Obama campaign came out swinging. “I don’t see why this is so much different from what Billy Shaheen did in New Hampshire,” David Axelrod said , referring to Shaheen’s suggestion the GOP rivals would use Obama’s past drug use against him.

Then came Johnson’s explanation: “My comments today were referring to Barack Obama’s time spent as a community organizer, and nothing else. Any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect.”

That this explanation is ludicrous on its face shouldn’t take much convincing. It makes no sense that Johnson would use that kind of wink-nudge innuendo to refer to Obama’s community organizing. But that’s not the worst part. The biggest scandal is that the Clinton campaign tacitly endorses his excuse. Not only did they release Johnson’s explanatory statement, now Bill Clinton has said in a radio interview that “we have to take [Johnson] at his word.” He’s right— he has to take Johnson at his word, seeing as Johnson’s word is now the campaign’s word. But that doesn’t mean we have to.

So, why doesn’t Johnson just admit he was referring to coke, apologize, and be done with it? The answer is that Johnson is different from Shaheen. As race issues take center stage in the run-up to the South Carolina primary, the Clinton campaign can use all the help from African-American endorsers it can get. (Obama’s rise has caused considerable strife among the old guard, many of whom are still waffling between the two senators.) Cutting off Johnson for his remarks would kill a valuable campaign asset: an influential black man testifying against Obama.

It’s just sad that Johnson’s original point—that to impugn the Clintons’ dedication to the black community is insulting—became an insult itself: An insult to our intelligence.