Hillary Clinton has a fair point about Barack Obama. He should be vetted more thoroughly than he has been so far during the primary process. He has not gotten the scrutiny she has. But every time she opens her mouth to make this point, a brass band starts playing, an 18-wheeler backfires, and the water heater explodes. This might create sympathy for Clinton—except that her campaign is causing the ruckus.
The latest distraction comes from Robert Johnson, the founder of BET, who introduced Clinton on Sunday in South Carolina. In an attempt to defend the Clintons’ record on race relations in a state where half of the primary electorate is African-American, Johnson appeared to try to take political advantage of the drug use Obama admitted in his book Dreams of My Father. The Clintons, he said, “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 asked to explain what he was talking about, the Clinton campaign—which has already lost a top official when he resigned over raising Obama’s drug use—issued a statement saying Johnson was simply referring to Obama’s days as a community organizer. This made perfect sense, of course, because Obama’s efforts organizing African-Americans in poor neighborhoods has nothing at all to do with his involvement with black concerns—the contrast Johnson was drawing. In other words, the cover story was gibberish. In some faith traditions, it would make Johnson a target for a thunderbolt. That the Clinton team passed it along was embarrassing. The only upside was that it deflected attention from another Johnson insult: his reference to Obama as a “guy who says, ‘I want to be a reasonable, likable Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ ”
Johnson is right that the Clintons have a record of caring about the African-American community, but when you wrap your point in such boobery, it’s impossible to find. Clinton may have found her voice in the New Hampshire primary, but she’s still got the clanging surrogates of the establishment old order who are speaking for her in harmful ways. This is a pattern of side dramas in the Clinton orbit—from the earlier fracas in New Hampshire over Obama’s drug use to the accusations about gender-based piling-on after Hillary’s poor performance in the late-October debate in Philadelphia. Even when Clinton has a legitimate point, the exaggerations and evasions, amplified by those trying to help her, obscure it beyond all recognition. They also feed into bad Clinton memories, and the attendant noise suggests the clanging will continue if she gets elected, too.
The Clinton team complains that the press ratchets up the volume. She gets more attention than Obama. There’s merit to this claim, but she has a tougher road to walk in part because of her eight years in the Clinton White House, from which she also benefits so much. Reporters were conditioned during the parsing and drama of the first Clinton era to look for the parsing and the drama. If Clinton deserves credit for her White House accomplishments—and she does—she is also stuck with shouldering the negative consequences of those years.
Bill Clinton is part of Hillary’s problem at the moment. It was completely fair, in his famous fairy-tale tirade, for Bill to question why Obama never produced a moment of excellence in the Senate to match the extraordinary political judgment he showed five years ago when he spoke against the Iraq war—which, after all, Obama is running on. While making that reasonable point, though, Bill massaged the facts about the original war resolution that Hillary voted for. And he went overboard in claiming that it is the Obama campaign that has truly gone negative and that it had been “blistering” him personally for months. The Obama team isn’t as saintly as Obama claims, but it’s not the wrecking machine of Clinton’s imagination. It’s also hard for him to be the one raising questions about Obama’s record on Iraq, when he has created distracting side shows about his own record on the war.
The South Carolina primary has now gotten very ugly, and the question of race threatens to spoil the Democratic nomination altogether. Clinton is on the defensive, particularly because of the criticism from Rep. James Clyburn, the influential South Carolina representative, and Al Gore’s former campaign manager, Donna Brazile, neither of whom is affiliated with the Obama campaign. Barack Obama’s campaign has sought to stoke African-American resentment by circulating among blacks these negative reactions to Clinton’s remarks. She might be able to point that out in order to at least bring the fight to a truce, which would allow a more reasonable assessment of her recent remarks about Martin Luther King. That would not only improve her chances in South Carolina but also keep her ultimate potential victory from being tainted by the charge that she won by making Barack Obama’s race the central issue of the contest (a real worry among Obama allies). Either way, she’s got some talking to do. But she’s got to do something about Robert Johnson first, or else no one is going to hear her.