Race Baiting in South Carolina Primary Politics? Just Ask Hillary Clinton

If the Juan Williams race baiting debate attack on Newt Gingrich somehow leaves you with any doubt that there’s something about the South Carolina primaries that seems to bring out the worst in this sort of political behavior, you need look no further than the 2008 Democratic primary to see just how down and dirty things can get in the Palmetto State.

Four years ago, the Democratic primary was split with Sen. Barack Obama winning the Iowa caucuses and Hillary Clinton pulling out a comeback victory in New Hampshire. The political tag team of Bill and Hillary Clinton felt secure about the South Carolina black vote because of President Clinton’s persistent high approval ratings among African-Americans, but they were about to get their first real taste of Sen. Obama’s Chicago-style political game. Sen. Obama and his team were able to take a couple of innocuous statements by the Clintons and twist them into a race related controversy.

It started when Hillary Clinton said to an interviewer on Fox News;

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’s the complete quote but the New York Times ran no less than three separate stories that shortened it to;

“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Mrs. Clinton said in trying to make the case that her experience should mean more to voters than the uplifting words of Mr. Obama. “It took a president to get it done.”

They omitted Mrs. Clinton’s reference to JFK, which, combined with remarks from a Clinton supporter caused some initial drama with Ted Kennedy, who went on to endorse Barack Obama. The Clintons were about to come down with a dose of press bias karma. On January 9, 2008 the New York Times editorial board set the race-baiting table.

Why Mrs. Clinton would compare herself to Mr. Johnson, who escalated the war in Vietnam into a generational disaster, was baffling enough. It was hard to escape the distasteful implication that a black man needed the help of a white man to effect change. She pulled herself back from the brink by later talking about the mistreatment and danger Dr. King faced. Former President Bill Clinton, who seems to forget he is not the one running, hurled himself over the edge on Monday with a bizarre and rambling attack on Mr. Obama.

A few days later, here’s Bob Herbert bringing the dessert, writing in his The New York Time column;

I could also sense how hard the Clinton camp was working to undermine Senator Obama’s main theme, that a campaign based on hope and healing could unify, rather than further polarize, the country.

So there was the former president chastising the press for the way it was covering the Obama campaign and saying of Mr. Obama’s effort: “The whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

But – it wasn’t true. Watch Bill Clinton’s entire remarks and it’s 100% clear as to what he’s referring to as “the biggest fairy tale” and it’s not Obama’s candidacy. Nor is it the notion, as Herbert claims, that “a campaign based on hope and healing could unify.” No, the “fairy tale” is the idea that Obama was consistently opposed to the war in Iraq. Clinton points out speeches that Obama made and votes he cast as a Senator. His comments strike me as neither bizarre nor rambling, as the Times had claimed.

No matter. When Hillary Clinton appeared on Meet the Press just prior to the South Carolina primary, the late Tim Russert led with the race card attack against Clinton, including the quote from Herbert’s New York Times piece. Russert even plays a selectively edited clip of Clinton’s comments, where he cuts out every single part of what Clinton says leaving only ‘this whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Russert follows this butchered video clip with the quote from South Carolina Senator and Congressional Black Caucus member James Clyburn that had also appeared in the Times; “To call that dream a fairytale, which Bill Clinton seem to be doing, could very well be insulting to some of us.” Hillary Clinton tries to point out that Russert is not playing the entire clip, but he shuts her down and plays a quote from Donna Brazil expressing disappointment in Bill Clinton and his “tone.” Russert continues to filibuster relentlessly for a couple of minutes, quoting the New York Times

In their book Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin fill in some of the backstage detail.

A few days after New Hampshire, a memo surfaced, produced by Obama’s South Carolina operation, that grouped together MLK/LBJ and “fairytale” along with other race-freighted incidents — including Billy Shaheen’s and Penn’s invocations of Obama’s youthful cocaine use — to suggest that the Clintons were playing the race card. Then there was Illinois congressman and Obama campaign cochair Jesse Jackson, Jr., who went on MSNBC and noted that while Clinton had teared up in New Hampshire, she never cried over Hurricane Katrina. “Those tears also have to be analyzed,” Jackson said, “particularly as we head to South Carolina, where 45% of African-Americans will participate in the Democratic contest.”

To Bill, the picture was all too clear. By accusing him and Hillary of slapping the race card on the table, the Obama campaign was doing exactly that itself. And though it infuriated him, he couldn’t help but respect the artfulness of the play. The Obama’s were tough; they weren’t just sitting back and letting the nomination slip away.

On Meet the Press, Clinton tries to take the high road against the charge, referring to Senator Obama as an extraordinary person and candidate. A few days later, Hillary Clinton was trounced in the South Carolina primary.

If that’s how the Obama campaign treated a fellow Democrat and “the first black president,” just imagine the GOP candidate — and the American people — are in store for come this fall.