Placing the Clintons' (race) comments in full context

The debate over race is continuing to rock the Democratic primary, and I now feel obliged to offer a mea culpa. In the post in which I summarized the complaints of Obama's campaign against comments made by the Clintons, I quoted the version of Hillary's quote on MLK as it appeared in the New York Times -- but it now looks like the quote used by the NYT and most media accounts might have mischaracterized what Clinton said by completely truncating her comments, in a way that makes her words look much more condescending to King than the full quote does (this is being reported and pointed out by TPM's reporting team).

This is not to say that Clinton's words were not inappropriate, but that this leaves room to interpret her comments as a swipe to John F. Kennedy (to whom Obama is often compared) rather than at MLK. With Clinton's comments now at the center of a firestorm, the meaning of what she said is being debated with increasing heat. And voters can still decide that Clinton was disparaging King's accomplishments, but they should do so after having looked at the full quote. So here is the the NYT's account I relied on in my original post:

“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.”

And here is Clinton's full quote:

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 real in people's lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished.

As I said, this does not at all clear up Clinton's comments, and her comments about "the dream" becoming reality towards the end appears to hint at MLK's dream, seemingly diminishing the momentous importance of King's actions, marches and organizing. But Clinton's criticism of Kennedy seems more relevant to what she was saying -- in essence that JFK trumpeted his commitment to civil-rights but did not have the capacity to back up his speeches, whereas Johnson actually rolled up his sleeve and acted. Both interpretations are possible, and the "it took a president" could be diminishing to MLK or to JFK, depending on how people want to read this. But debating on these grounds and using the full quote seems much more fair than relying on the truncated version.

And it also seems important to cite the full quote of Bill Clinton's referring to the "fairy tale" since that has also been criticized for racial overtones. The Obama campaign is accusing Clinton of diminishing a black candidacy as a fairy tale, and Clinton is responding that he was talking about the media portrayal of Obama's opposition to the war. And in this case, the full quote seems much more clear-cut and in favor of Bill Clinton's version of the incident, as the entirety of these comments are devoted to the Iraq War (if you want to make sure these comments are leaving nothing out, the video of Clinton's comments is available here):

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, 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.

Now the controversy is continuing, fed by Hillary's decision to fight back rather than see if it will die out. She said, “I was personally offended at the approach taken that was not only misleading but unnecessarily hurtful. And I have made that clear to many people in the last several days." Clinton is also accusing the Obama camp of "distorting her remarks." And this in the context of the Huffington Post reporting that the Obama campaign is distributing a memo highlighting all the instances they feel the Clintons are playing the race card. (Update: The controversy is getting even more heated, if that is possible, with Obama responding to Clinton's Meet the Press appearance and calling her putting the blame on his camp "ludicrous.")

Overall, the media is blowing up this race and gender controversy beyond belief. Whether they are criticizing Obama's sexism during last week's debate, the Tom Bradley effect in New Hampshire or the racist overtones of Clinton's comments, they are clearly enjoying the portrayal of the Democratic primaries as the victory of identity politics. Just look at this NYT story published this week that summarizes the election as a clash between the civil rights movement and the women's rights movement. To frame the article, the accompanying picture is one of... Elizabeth Stanton and Frederick Douglass and a significant portion of the article is devoted to the post-Civil War fight between those two towering figures over which group should get the right to vote first.

It seems incredible to suggest that race and gender are playing a role in this year's election that in any way and extent resembles the Douglass/Stanton debate. There is very little chance that the Bradley effect played a significant role. Obama's "you're likable enough" or Edwards's criticism of Hillary's jacket were both inappropriate; and so was Hillary's comment on King and Johnson (even if we look at the full quote that included the swipes at Kennedy). But Clinton has no history of racist comments just as Obama and Edwards have no history of sexism; neither of these storylines fit a preexisting narrative in any way, and both are being blown-up out of proportion by the candidates and by the media.



  • Yea, I still think the "it took a president to get it done" means Clinton was diminishing Martin Luther King and not JFK, but what comes before that does show an attack on Kennedy.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 13 January, 2008 13:44  

  • King was a leader alright. But, he couldn't bring about the regulation that is the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT now. Yes, Hillary is right and she has great respect for King as is evident in all her statements.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 13 January, 2008 13:49  

  • I think it's evident, after reading the full quote, that Clinton's comments are not so much a swipe at MLK as they are that hope, even hope buoyed by action, isn't enough to change America. So we can read the whole comment as an attack on the politics of hope--it isn't enough to have activism, and it isn't enough to have a president who wants to make change but doesn't. You need a president with the experience necessary to make change. It's just another variant of her "experience" argument, albeit not a well-phrased one. But it's very interesting that she went after two figures that the Democratic Party reveres--including one that is the subject of almost universal American admiration--to make her point. A way to tack toward the center, perhaps, in preparation for the general election (should she make it there?)

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 13 January, 2008 14:32  

  • I don't think that the Clinton campaign is racist or racially motivated. I haven't met any reasonable person who does think so. However, I do believe that, in the blind pursuit of power without regard to principle, Hillary Inc. will gladly benefit from whatever racial tensions might exist in the country.

    Hence, there is already buzz that the Clinton campaign thinks distrust of African American community on the part of Latinos might contribute to her advantage in states like Nevada and California.

    This strategy is one rooted in the worst kind of cynicism and one that can only lead to the defeat of Democrats next November.

    By Blogger Patrick, At 13 January, 2008 14:46  

  • Why must we see the remarks as an attack on anybody? I still fail to see the "inappropriate" nature of the words. Are we so ignorant of history and the political process not to see that the civil Rights Act of 1964 was a process, not an event. An in that process many played a role, some big some small. To point out the place of LBJ in the process, as it parallel the present political situation, is not in any way disrespectful of Dr. Martin Luther King. The NY Times and Dona Brazil fanned the flames of this discussion by being intellectually dishonest when addressing the issue and turning it into a race biting event. Perhaps, we are all a product of the sitcom mentality, in which every problem, no matter how momentous has to be solved in 30 minutes. Folks pay attention to the moment, because we might be paying for it for the next eight years! Witness George W Bush!

    By Anonymous robert_v, At 13 January, 2008 14:49  

  • I'm sorry Mr Rational, but even in light of the full quote, she still elevates LBJ over MLK as far as leaders during the Civil Rights movement go.

    Whether she consciously chose to, or not, she denigrates the "dream", and thus the sacrifices and work and determination and courage of the people that supported the "dream", and elevates the "president" who reacted to the growing voices and pressures for change that were beating at his door. Of course, both men deserve credit, but its clear that Hillary Clinton does not understand the power that people have when called to action. If MLK had the opportunity in 1963 to become President, I happen to think he would have been a very good one, despite Hillary dismissing him as the "dreamer" to Johnson's "president".

    This is why many black people, such as myself, have had the reaction that we've had to her comments. She might not have intended to take a "swipe" at Dr. King, but this is exactly what she did.

    By Anonymous Rocky Mountain Pie, At 13 January, 2008 14:59  

  • Of course she elevates Johnson over King, RMP. But that was her point to begin with...LBJ pushed through far-reaching changes that MLK could only advocate for, so Johnson's role was more important. You obviously don't agree with that, and neither do I, but what she meant at least comes through more clearly here, which should dispel the supposedly "racist" nature of her comments.

    Incidentally, she is also elevating LBJ over JFK, the president who had a chance to pass civil rights reform but didn't. Thus, she is taking two indirect swipes at Obama, not just one, as he has frequently been compared to Kennedy on the campaign trail.

    And I didn't say, if you actually read what I wrote, that her comment wasn't a swipe at MLK, just that it wasn't "so much a swipe"...as in, it was not her primary intent, but something she did nevertheless. Her primary intent was to boost LBJ's profile as an experienced leader capable of making great changes, in the process encouraging a favorable comparison to herself.

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 13 January, 2008 16:44  

  • People treat MLK as some sort of infallible papal figure, and *any* non-100%-appraisal comment of him, no matter large or small, is considered "racist."

    He has done great things, no doubt. But he should also be subject to comparisons and criticisms just like the rest of us. Isn't this an example of the suppression of free speech, similar to when the Pope will excommunicate any dissidents of the Vatican during the medieval times ? Has MLK became a "third rail" of politics so much as merely mentioning him, even in the a positive context, will be totally misinterpreted?

    Has Obama trascended racial politics, or will we fall back into the Al Sharpton days again? Wasn't Obama the one who claimed he's a uniter for all races in his post-IA victory ? We can't have double standards here by claiming "uniter" when he wins and claiming "racial attacks" when he loses.

    By Blogger Jason, At 13 January, 2008 18:15  

  • Obama hasn't precipitated any of this, and in fact it's been theorized that the reason Clinton keeps going back to her MLK distinction despite it hurting her with black voters is it polarizes Barack Obama, who has taken pains to stay away from racial pandering or playing the victim during this campaign. By forcing him to respond, it also forces him to wear the mantle of 'Black Candidate' that seems to repel certain white voters. Time will tell if this strategy is working for Clinton, but it's something to keep in mind.

    By Anonymous Not.My.Name, At 13 January, 2008 18:56  

  • not.my.name;

    That is an interesting take, an angle I had not considered. Incredibly machiavellic, still plausible. I just don't think Hillary meant to disparage MLK. In the course of a long campaign these folks will say or do things that after good consideration they would like to take back. But a man or a woman had to be judge on the balance of their life’s and deed. I am angrier at Dona Brazil and Matthews and Tim Russert because they know that these statements were made in the context of a larger point. Right or wrong, adequate or inadequate. But they persist in using snippets out of the proper context, in a game of "gotcha". Russert particularly disgraced himself today, by showing that truncated clip of B. Clinton "fairy tale" statement. Once he did that the validity of the point he was making and the question to follow are devoid of any value. I was repelled by that and somebody should call him on the carpet for that.

    By Anonymous robert_v, At 13 January, 2008 21:18  

  • Wasn't Hillary a "Goldwater Girl" in the 1964 election cycle? When did she start revering MLK or LBJ? Russert did a poor job on MTP today, but I still don't believe Clinton's spin on the war. Hell, I didn't have any National Intelligence Estimate or any other info other than what was in the newspapers and I sure knew that Bush was taking the country to war. She just thought it would be a sucess and she would have been on the wrong side of the issue because she was planning to run for president. Obama WAS correct on the war.

    By Anonymous stone621, At 14 January, 2008 00:30  

  • stone621, people have been known to change over time. I don't think Hillary revered LBJ as a young woman, but I think that she may now...and in any case, she finds the "experienced politician making change" angle valuable for her at the moment. As for MLK, she probably does admire him, as she should. Though he was a man with clay feet, I don't know anyone who would be willing to say out loud that the country isn't better because of King's civil rights work. (Though I'm fairly sure I know one or two who might think it...sad, that.)

    Also, Goldwater had a history of supporting civil rights legislation; he only opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act because he thought it would allow government to intrude too far into private enterprise. Are you saying that former "Goldwater Girls" wouldn't support civil rights as a whole, and thus would never like MLK? Because that seems obviously fallacious. Or are you saying that there's no way any conservative Republican can admire a Democrat for taking a moral stand? Again, that seems obviously wrong. I believe you aren't making either of these assertions, but for the life of me I can't figure out your point here.

    As for Obama being correct on the war, I chortle every time I heard him say that Sen. Clinton voted for the war, and Sen. Edwards voted for the war, but HE didn't vote for the war. Trivially true...it's rather easy to not vote on issues in front of the Senate when you're not in the Senate! Also, how can you explain former Pres. Clinton's comments quoting Obama from a 2004 speech and comparing his record with someone he's gone after for supporting the war initially?

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 14 January, 2008 01:19  

  • When Senator Obama had a chance of voting on something that had meaning, that should have been dear to his heart, the Iran Revolutionary Guard amendment, he was absent. Mind you, he was the only senator running for office that was absent on that vote. Up to that moment I had been considering sending a contribution to his campaign, and I was more than willing to vote for him. If the Iran vote was so important, if he really believe that president Bush is marching us to war against Iran, just as he marched us to war against Iraq that vote should had been of paramount importance. He did not show up. I was disappointed beyond believe. He is a phony, a fraud. I will take my chances with Hillary. Yes she voted for the Iraq resolution. And she has explained the vote to my satisfaction. But if Barack is a phony when it comes to the central justification of his campaign, then what else can we expect of him?

    By Anonymous robert_v, At 14 January, 2008 08:50  

  • It is my recollection that Obama was assured by Harry Reid that the Iranian Revolutional Guard issue was not going to come up for a vote that day. That is why he stayed on the campaign trail. To say Obama is a phony because of that is absurd. Why aren't you questioning why Clinton voted for it?

    The point I am making about Clinton being a "Goldwater Girl" is that Clinton always sees which way the wind is blowing before she decides which way she is being blown (nothing intended there). In other words, she waits until the dust settles and then declares she was for whichever side was the winner. Can't you see she does this over and over again?

    By Anonymous stone621, At 14 January, 2008 14:20  

  • Patrick nailed it. I don't for a moment believe that the Clintons are racist. But I do believe that they're very cynical, and are willing to strew all kinds of ambiguous comments around, hoping that some of them will be construed in a way that is favorable to their electability.

    I'm not AA, but I can understand what the reaction to this must be. It certainly doesn't sound as if she was declaring that it takes a complex partnership between visionaries and politicians to move the ball. Rather, it can sound as if she was implying that the dreamers by themselves are nice, but need the assistance of the pragmatic politician (in this case, white) to get anything accomplished. Viewed in that light, it is demeaning, particularly against the history of race relations in the US.

    By Anonymous Zoot, At 14 January, 2008 16:12  

  • Zoot, dreamers by themselves are nice, but it DOES in fact take other people to make change. Be realistic. MLK was very willing to put his life and everything he had on the line to awaken America's conscience, and we celebrate him for that. But without LBJ pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress and then signing it, King is just a footnote in American history, a name we cite as the inspiration for the person who finally did make the breakthrough. This is the way of the world...if the oppressed want to make a change without starting a revolutionary war, they need an ally in power to make things happen.

    The fact that MLK was black and LBJ was white, though very significant to the reasons behind that particular fight, is insignificant in the context of the larger theory. Gandhi and his people needed the British government to set India free. On a more uni-racial note, the people of the USSR needed Boris Yeltsin (as ineffective as he later became) to stand up against Soviet tyranny. Hell, despite all the work of Anthony and Stanton, it took the actions of men in this country to grant women the right to vote. And if there is no ally in power, if the government is perfectly willing to kill to protect its authority, then you get another Tianamen Square.

    The battle has raged many times throughout history, and its main participants are oppressed and oppressors, of all different races and creeds. If you choose to look at one particular instance and say that the idea of one race needing the help of members of another in order to become full citizens is demeaning...well, you're welcome to your opinion. But demeaning or not, it's the truth...and moreover, its absence from the historical record would result in a somewhat more demeaning situation, wouldn't you say?

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 14 January, 2008 16:45  

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