Obama Gets Dressed

In case you were growing tired of fights over NAFTA , lofty rhetoric , and debates , the Democrats have a new spat du jour for you. Today, the Drudge Report posted a big, fat headline that howled, “Clinton staffers circulate ‘dressed’ Obama.” Accompanying the headline was a picture of Obama on a diplomatic trip to Kenya in 2006, wearing some type of traditional dress of the area—complete with a turban-looking headdress.

The picture was taken while Obama was in Wajir, a rural desert area in the northeast of Kenya . I spoke with Mark Bellamy, a former ambassador to Kenya and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who told me that Wajir is a pastoral town of about 5,000 people—almost all of whom are Muslim. Bellamy—who hasn’t declared his preference in the presidential race—didn’t recognize the “outfit” but said it wasn’t Islamic garb. He thought it was probably some sort of traditional Somali-Kenyan dress and that the people hosting Obama offered it to him as a sign of hospitality. “Wherever I travel I get dressed up in same way,” he said, “out of consideration for the hosts.”  

Obama’s campaign is offering a similar line. On a conference call, retired Air Force Gen. Scott Gration said Obama was just being polite by trying on the garment. They compared it to when you open up gifts at Christmas—even if you don’t like that ugly sweater, you still try it on so your aunt smiles. As a friend pointed out, responding with that logic allows Obama’s campaign not only to push back against the Manchurian-Muslim rumors but also remind voters that Obama’s a Christian and he gets crappy Christmas gifts like the rest of the country.

The conference call wasn’t the only action between the two campaigns. First, the Obama campaign sent around a press release at 9:29 a.m. from campaign manager David Plouffe, in which he said the photo is “exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties and diminishes respect for America in the world.”  

Then, at 10:54 a.m., Clinton’s campaign manager, Maggie Williams, pierced the quiet with her own release . “Enough,” she wrote. “If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed.   Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely.” She goes on to say Obama is trying to “distract from the serious issues.” Note that they never refuted Drudge’s piece. (More detail on that piece of the story is trickling in .)

Let’s take a moment to review: Obama’s campaign thinks Clinton is trying to be divisive by encouraging the Obama-is-a-Muslim myth. Clinton’s campaign thinks the Obama campaign is being divisive because it thinks Clinton’s campaign is being divisive. We love these spats as much as the next blogger, but Clinton’s stance is flimsy at best. While Obama cries foul, he also gets to show everybody that he is experienced enough to have gone on a diplomatic mission to a foreign country. Plus, he gets a high-profile platform to say he isn’t a Muslim. Clinton, meanwhile, is forced to play traditional-clothing catch-up while covering-up her staffers’ foolishness.  

This episode is reminiscent of two others that happened earlier in the campaign. First, in June 2007, the Clintons disclosed a liquidation of their investments in India to avoid a conflict of interest during the campaign. In response, Obama staffers mass-mailed news outlets an analysis of the financial deal with the headline: “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab).” Clinton got the better of that spat, and Obama apologized while faulting his staff . Maybe Obama can offer Clinton some advice on the perils of running an organization with hundreds of employees.

But the more fitting precedent was set by other Hillary Clinton staffers earlier in the campaign. In December, the campaign asked two of its employees to resign after they proliferated rumors that Obama was a Muslim . If the campaign is consistent, we should see Clinton undress another staffer’s career in a few days.