Fighting Words

Loose Lips or Dirty Tricks?

Game Change provides more evidence of the Clintons’ shocking behavior during the 2008 campaign.

Hillary and Bill Clinton

The inevitable grumbling and grunting about the use of unattributed quotations in Game Change, the engrossing new campaign book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, has been accompanied by a more or less grudging general admission that nobody cited in these pages has so far complained of being misrepresented. To this suggestive point I would add, from comparatively limited experience, that where the authors discuss anything that I know about, they have it right. In fact, what they say is often less sensational than what they might have said.

Surely this is particularly true of the most notorious rapid-response operation in modern political history: the infamous Clinton team and its eager outriders and propagandists. I am astonished at how relatively little attention this has received. If the book is to be believed, then the following things occurred:

1) After his wife’s third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, Bill Clinton telephoned Sen. Edward Kennedy in pursuit of an endorsement and, according to Kennedy’s own account as given to a friend, said of then-Sen. Barack Obama: A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.

2) In a subsequent conversation, former President Clinton told Kennedy in so many words: “The only reason you’re endorsing him is because he’s black. Let’s just be clear.” (This last is given in direct quotes and not in reported speech.)

3) After Obama so handily won the South Carolina primary in January 2008, drawing more than half the state’s white voters under the age of 30, Bill Clinton’s comment to a reporter was: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ‘84 and ‘88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.” Answering Obama’s question—”Now, why would he say that?”—the authors conclude:

Clinton was comparing Obama to Jackson to diminish the former’s victory, and to accomplish the blackening that Obama’s advisers suspected was his objective all along. (The Jackson comparison circulated in Clintonworld the night before, in an email from Bill’s former White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, which prophesied, “After Feb 5, Obama may prove to be a lesser version of Jackson.”)

4) Mention of Blumenthal brings me to the next point of shock in the narrative, where by mid-May 2008 the Clinton campaign is foundering hopelessly and beginning to rely on the desperate pitch to “superdelegates.” Two things then happen: Bill Clinton plays the race card even more crudely, and Sidney Blumenthal claims that Michelle Obama has been caught on tape using the word whitey. To cite Heilemann and Halperin again:

Bill Clinton’s main assignment was continuing to make phone calls to superdelegates, in which he pressed the case for Hillary and against Obama aggressively—at times, too aggressively. Clinton’s message, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, was that the country wasn’t ready to elect an African American president.

And then there’s this:

Blumenthal was obsessed with the “whitey tape,” and so were the Clintons, who not only believed that it existed but felt that there was a chance it might emerge in time to save Hillary. “They’ve got a tape, they’ve got a tape,” she told her aides excitedly.

I have concentrated until now on the race-card material, but this is by no means the whole story. Everybody remembers the later wild allegations made by Sarah Palin about Obama’s “palling around with terrorists.” But this is how the whole smear started, during a Democratic debate in Philadelphia way back in April when Sen. Clinton seemed to know a huge amount about former Weatherman Bill Ayers and his supposed closeness to Obama (who had been 8 years old when Ayers was doing his revolting stuff):

Clinton’s staff was surprised; Ayers hadn’t been part of her prep. But Hillary had a number of friends—among them Sid Blumenthal, whose nickname was “Grassy Knoll”—regularly feeding her on the sly negative tidbits of dubious veracity about Obama. (In getting ready for that night, Hillary casually mentioned to her aides that she’d heard that Obama’s mother was a communist.)

I don’t say any of this as a partisan. I never agreed with those who said that the Obamas had “laid to rest” the problem of their long association with the appalling Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But that was a public question, to be resolved by democratic argument. Whereas the striking thing about all the examples above is how low they are in their tone and the commitment they reveal to the spreading of surreptitious innuendo by grimy, cowardly, and underhanded means.

A bit more than a decade ago, I had a public showdown with Blumenthal, who was then professionally engaged in defaming more than one truth-telling female witness against then-President Clinton. I thought it was wrong for the White House to be involved in such creepy tactics. But at the time, a huge number of liberal and pseudo-left commentators thought of Clinton as a victim rather than a practitioner of “sexual McCarthyism” and even went so far as to utter the absurd, insulting idea that this moral vandal was the nation’s “first black president.” Now that the exact same team has been exposed as circulating the cheapest sort of racist insinuation against the man who actually did become the first president with an African parent, I wonder if any of that liberal chorus will have the grace to blush. It was the old Bill-Hillary-Sidney gang who handed over the weapons of defamation to the Republicans in the closing stages of the last campaign, and it was they who were not-so-secretly upset when the candidate of their own party actually won. Will there be any belated acknowledgement that one set of dirty tricks led to another? Of course there will not. But meanwhile, keeping score is the next best thing.