Contributed by Paul Collins
During the New Hampshire debates, Barack Obama warned that we should not underestimate the power of words.
He was clearly referring to their positive effect but the Clintons, ironically, have illustrated Obama's point on the negative end of the spectrum.
As Laura Washington writes in the Chicago Sun-Times:
Their words raised hackles. Apologies followed. We like this Obama guy, they said. We meant no harm, they said. We were misunderstood, they said.
They may have meant one thing. But many will hear something else.
Obama is "the other." He is dangerous. He is hustling, criminal, back-alley black man.
Racial code words are not new to American politics. The Rev. Jesse Jackson joked about "Hymietown." George H.W. Bush trotted out Willie Horton. A campaign ad starred a Playboy-esque blond bombshell beckoning to Senate candidate Harold Ford. George Allen had his "macaca" moment.
This campaign must be different. Hillary Clinton's stunning New Hampshire upset last week came courtesy of her overactive tear ducts, the pundits say.
Obama had just beat Clinton --badly -- in Iowa. She is tired, defeated, maybe afraid.
At a New Hampshire coffee shop, a woman asked if she was OK. Clinton teared up, her voice quavered: "I have so many opportunities from this country, I just don't want to see us fall backward," she replied. "This is very personal for me -- it's not just political, it's not just public."
Listen to the words. "I just don't want to see us fall backward." Backward to what?
To that black man. That black man who beat Hillary. That black man who made the white woman cry.
White New Hampshire voters came to her rescue. Poor Hillary. Don't worry -- we will protect you. We will save you.
Our racial wounds are deep, their impact subliminal. Words have consequences. In these sensitive times, they can activate our most unconscious fears and tap the deepest recesses of our ugly history. Every black man in America knows it. Especially Barack Obama.
Listen to the words.
Listen to the words indeed.
The Clintons have spent the past week backpedaling.
Attempting to clean up the mess they made with black voters because of their words.
Beginning with Bill Clinton's tirade at a rally for Hillary in New Hampshire.
Frank James, reporting for The Chicago Tribune, provides the transcript of Bill's rant (along with the oft-replayed video clip):
"But since you raised the judgment issue, let's go over this again. That is the central argument for his campaign. 'It doesn't matter that I started running for president less a year after I got to the Senate from the Illinois State Senate. I am a great speaker and a charismatic figure and I'm the only one who had the judgment to oppose this war from the beginning. Always, always, always.' "
"First it is factually not true that everybody that supported that resolution supported Bush attacking Iraq before the UN inspectors were through. Chuck Hagel was one of the co-authors of that resolution. The only Republican Senator that always opposed the war. Every day from the get-go. He authored the resolution to say that Bush could go to war only if they didn't co-operate with the inspectors and he was assured personally by Condi Rice as many of the other Senators were. So, first the case is wrong that way."
"Second, it is wrong that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war in every year, numerating the years, and never got asked one time, not once, 'Well, how could you say, that when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution? You said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war and you took that speech you're now running on off your website in 2004 and there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since?' Give me a break.
"This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen...So you can talk about Mark Penn all you want. What did you think about the Obama thing calling Hillary the Senator from Punjab? Did you like that?"
"Or what about the Obama hand out that was covered up, the press never reported on, implying that I was a crook? Scouring me, scathing criticism, over my financial reports. Ken Starr spent $70 million and indicted innocent people to find out that I wouldn't take a nickel to see the cow jump over the moon.
"So, you can take a shot at Mark Penn if you want. It wasn't his best day. He was hurt, he felt badly that we didn't do better in Iowa. But you know, the idea that one of these campaigns is positive and the other is negative when I know the reverse is true and I have seen it and I have been blistered by it for months, is a little tough to take. Just because of the sanitizing coverage that's in the media, doesn't mean the facts aren't out there.
"Otherwise I do not have any strong feelings about that subject."
While Clinton's point was to distort the truth about Obama's opposition to the Iraq war (The Chicago Tribune also provides video of Obama's response to Bill Clinton, setting the record straight), the outburst had the more immediate consequence of appearing to suggest that Barack Obama's entire campaign was a "Fairy tale".
There's a great gem at the end of James' article that draws a comparison to another one of Bill Clinton's famous finger-pointing tirades:
Another problem: when he gets angry as he did Monday night, he reminds people of some of the worst moments of his presidency, especially the infamous, finger wagging performance when he asserted that he didn't have a relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
That's poison for the New York senator's campaign. The downside of the Clinton years and the specter of a repeat of such messy drama in another Clinton White House is what makes many voters reluctant about voting for the senator.
Next came Hillary's poorly worded and altogether ill-advised statement about the roll of President Lyndon Johnson in making the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a reality.
"I would point to the fact that that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became a reality in peoples lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished."
There is a general sense, from both black leaders, and the black community at large, that these remarks appear to diminish the role of Dr. King in the struggle for civil rights, while elevating that of President Johnson.
In both cases, the Clintons have attempted to falsely accuse Barack Obama's campaign for allegedly taking the quotes out of context and putting a negative racial spin on them.
A claim that Obama himself has consistently and truthfully refuted:
"This is fascinating to me. I mean I think what we saw this morning is why the American people are tired of Washington politicians and the games they play. But Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark, about King and Lyndon Johnson. I didn’t make the statement. I haven’t remarked on it, and she I think offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King’s role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act.
"She is free to explain that, but the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous. I have to point out that instead of telling the American people about her positive vision for America, Senator Clinton spent an hour talking about me and my record in a way that was flat out wrong.
"She suggested that I didn’t clearly and unambiguously oppose the war in Iraq when it is absolutely clear and anyone who has followed this knows that I did. I stood up against the war when she was voting for it, at a time when she didn’t read the intelligence reports or give diplomacy a chance. She belittled the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate despite the fact that she stood on the sidelines during that negotiations on that bill.
"I have to say that she started this campaign saying that she wanted to make history and lately she has been spending a lot of time rewriting it. I know that in Washington it is acceptable to say or do anything it takes to get elected but I really don’t think that is the kind of politics that is good for our party and I don’t think it is good for our country and I think that the American people will reject it in this election."
Indeed, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn (among others) rebuked the Clintons for their remarks on his own accord (and with good reason).
As reported by Carl Hulse for The New York Times:
Mr. Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a power in state Democratic politics, put himself on the sidelines more than a year ago to help secure an early primary for South Carolina, saying he wanted to encourage all candidates to take part. But he said recent remarks by the Clintons that he saw as distorting civil rights history could change his mind.
“We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics,” said Mr. Clyburn, who was shaped by his searing experiences as a youth in the segregated South and his own activism in those days. “It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal.”
Clyburn continued to keep the heat on the Clintons by releasing an additional statement the following day:
“There are many things I have fought for in my life, and first and foremost is my belief that every man, woman and child should be given an equal opportunity to succeed. That is my guiding principal in the upcoming South Carolina Democratic Presidential primary. I told the DNC, the South Carolina Democratic Party and the South Carolina General Assembly that I would do everything I could to ensure this first in the South primary is a success. My position and my focus remain the same, and I have conveyed that to the campaigns of Senators Obama, Clinton and Edwards.
“I encourage the candidates to be sensitive about the words they use. This is an historic race for America to have such strong, diverse candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. I want what is best for South Carolina and the nation – a successful South Carolina primary and a strong Democratic nominee.”
All this is to say that the real "fairy tale" here is the Clintons' belief that they can say and do whatever they wish without paying the price.
Hillary Clinton has learned a hard lesson about the power of words. One that will impact her standings among black voters, not just in South Carolina, but all across the U.S.
Obama currently outpaces her in polls of black voters nationally by enormous margins.