Psst, did you hear?…Hillary Clinton is questioning Martin Luther King, Jr’s legacy…Pass it on
Psst the Clinton camp is saying the Obama camp is deliberately stoking racial tensions…and the Obama camp is saying the Clinton camp is deliberately rewriting history Pass it on
Psst…the Clinton camp is denying the Obama camp’s accusations…Pass it on
Psst the Obama camp is denying the Clinton camp’s accusations…Pass it on
Psst…the Democratic party may be permanently fractured Pass it on
The political press, this past week, engaged in an epic game of Telephone: hear the whisper, spread the word. It started last Monday, when Hillary Clinton was interviewed on Fox News and, trying to highlight her experience working within that labyrinth known as Washington, noted that it took a president—LBJ—to codify the work of MLK. Then, on Sunday, BET founder Bob Johnson introduced Clinton at a South Carolina campaign event, during which he compared Barack Obama to Sidney Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (“I want to be a reasonable, likeable Sidney Poitier”) and alluded—glibly and unmistakably, though the Clinton camp tried to spin it otherwise—to Obama’s teenage experimentation with cocaine.
And now—despite last night’s truce between Obama and Clinton—the Democratic party may be broken. Or so some in the press are saying. NPR news analyst Juan Williams talked about the possibility of the MLK-legacy dispute leading to a “fractured Democratic party” on today’s Morning Edition; The Washington Post’s The Trail blog used the same term last night; the Christian Science Monitor declared that, “in going negative with Obama, something else is at stake: the next generation of Democrats”; Newsday, announcing yesterday evening’s truce, noted the “growing signs” that the leading contenders’ fight for the Democratic nomination is splintering their party; The Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet headlined her “racial tension” analysis with: “They try to cool things off, but race talk shakes up campaign.”
It’s fair to question the role that race is playing in the campaigns—and to question what this particularly divisive election will do, in the long run, to the Democratic party. But it’s both baffling and troubling that the media reached these points of Meta-Speculation via a single, and generally innocuous, comment. The evolution—from comment to story to intra-party fight to bigger story to intra-media fight to even bigger story to what-does-it-all-mean analysis—reveals a lot about the makeup of campaign coverage, from id to superego: its quick-fire nature; its viral makeup; its tendency to love a good dogfight even more than it loves a good horserace.
Take a look at the story’s humble origins. Here’s the Clintonian Comment in Question, and in full:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do; presidents 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 real in people’s lives because we had a president who said ‘We’re going to do it’ and actually got it accomplished.”
In that context, it’s clear that Clinton’s comment had nothing to do with race. Clinton was trying, counter-intuitively and perhaps a bit desperately, to highlight the unsung benefits of her being a “Washington insider”: to argue that, pragmatically, being on the inside of politics-as-usual would actually help her to get things done were she to become president. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, Clinton seemed to be saying, it takes a politician to make a law. It wasn’t about black-vs-white; it wasn’t even about rhetoric-vs-action (no one disputes that Dr. King brought much, much more than mere rhetoric to the Civil Rights movement); it was about insider-vs-outsider, experienced-vs-inexperienced. It wasn’t about Obama’s being black; it was about his being green.
Which is not to defend what Clinton said. We live in a sound-bite world, one that doesn’t generally appreciate or care to analyze the often painfully precise lines of her logic. She should have known how such a point might have been heard. Obama’s description of Clinton’s comment to Garrett was the right one: it was “ill-advised.”
But that doesn’t make it calculated or insulting to Dr. King’s legacy, as many in the media suggested. And it certainly doesn’t give it racial overtones. (And to suggest that merely referencing Dr. King gives it racial overtones well, the flaws in that logic are obvious.) But that’s how it was portrayed:
“In US Political Campaign, Clinton Defends Her Comments on Race” (MSNBC)
Clinton “dogged by continuing racial tensions around her presidential campaign” (Politico)
“Analysis: Will race matter to Dems?” (AP)
“Racial tensions roil Democratic race” (Politico)
“Racial Tensions Heat Up In Dem Campaign” (CBS News)