The Clintons and the 'War on Obama'
Last December, when I first learned via Clinton insiders that their “oppo” package would include Barack Obama’s associations with fiery black preacher Jeremiah Wright and Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers, I shrugged at what sounded to me like sub-standard fare from the dark side of American politics.
So what if someone’s minister said some stupid things or that an aging one-time student radical had lent some support to a politician’s campaign, I thought.
Besides those two themes, Clinton insiders were plotting how to exploit Obama’s past political ties to indicted real-estate developer Tony Rezko, and they even were hashing over how they might slip in suggestions that Obama’s dead mother had been a leftist. (When I heard the “oppo” about the dead mother, I really couldn’t believe my ears.)
Even then – in December before the first votes had been cast – the Clintons were so caught up in their ambition to return to the White House that they were veering toward the worst aspects of politics, what is generally associated with the American Right and the most ruthless Republican operatives – guilt-by-association, red-baiting, McCarthyism and racial messaging.
The rationale that I heard from the Clinton operatives was that these Obama vulnerabilities would be exploited by the Republicans in the general election, so it was necessary to destroy Obama when there was still time for another Democrat (i.e. Hillary Clinton) to be nominated.
But part of me didn’t believe the Clintons would go through with this War on Obama. I had trouble envisioning people who had been victimized by similar tactics – indeed whom I had defended when they were on the receiving end – resorting to such acts against a fellow Democrat, who by all accounts is a decent fellow and a good family man.
It is now clear, however, that the Clintons did decide to go through with it, “throwing the kitchen sink” at Obama, as one Clinton aide explained to the New York Times.
Plus, in doing so, the Clinton camp struck an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend alliance with some of the same pro-Republican media outlets that Sen. Clinton had dubbed in the 1990s the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
This alliance of convenience made Hillary Clinton an odd bedfellow with right-wing media mogul Richard Mellon Scaife, Fox News and even Rush Limbaugh, who has been urging Republicans to vote for Sen. Clinton in the Democratic primaries as a way to block Sen. Obama’s nomination.
And, with the right-wing media onboard, the mainstream news commentators could be counted on to tag along – which many did.
For instance, when Obama appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" on May 4, Tim Russert's first 12 questions were about Rev. Wright, followed by additional questions about wearing a flag pin and how would Obama "defend or define his patriotism." The first question about a substantive issue -- gas prices -- wasn't asked until halfway through the hour-long program.The Clintons also got special help from one of their old advisers, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, who reprised many of the anti-Obama “oppo” themes during a key prime-time debate before the Pennsylvania primary. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Are the Clintons Playing Joe McCarthy?’]
Thanks to these combined forces – and some unforced errors by Obama – some Clinton backers now believe they have a good chance of beating Obama in most of the remaining primaries and snatching the nomination from him.
In this determination to win, the Clintons seem not to care that their “oppo” is jabbing at some of America’s most sensitive sores. For one, obviously, there’s the touchy issue of race that Obama tried to play down as he presented himself as a post-racial candidate.
The Clintons – with their background in the racially charged politics of Arkansas – intuitively understand the complexities and subtleties of race-baiting politics, although to their credit, they historically have been on the anti-racist side.
In this case, however, the Clintons appear to have devised a strategy of branding Obama the “black candidate” and then building animosity toward him by fanning white unease about this little-known black with the exotic name.
Clinton supporters have dropped comments about his acknowledged drug use as a young man, sent around photos of him in African garb, and referenced his family ties to Muslims.
Most memorably, Bill Clinton likened Obama’s electoral victory in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s, and more recently, the former President played the role of white victim to reverse discrimination by accusing Obama’s people of playing the race card on him.
Initially, Democratic polls indicated that the coy racial references had limited effect in “ghetto-izing” Obama, who continued to do well with many white demographic groups (except white middle-aged women, but they were rallying around Hillary Clinton more because of her gender, not against his race).
However, the cumulative effect of what the Clinton campaign started calling the “Obama scandals” gradually drove a wedge between Obama and many whites, especially working-class Catholics, the so-called “Reagan Democrats.”
The Clinton campaign also hit other sore points of American public life, such as the post-9/11 resistance to view the United States as at fault for anything.
Rev. Wright represented something of a two-fer. As an angry black man, he helped further “ghetto-ize” Obama, but he also reinforced questions about Obama’s patriotism with comments about “chickens coming home to roost” on 9/11 and incendiary rhetoric about “God-damn America.”
After the 9/11 attacks, the last thing many Americans wanted to hear was any suggestion that U.S. foreign policy may have played a role in provoking the attacks. That was why George W. Bush presented the ludicrous motive for the al-Qaeda suicide attacks as simply that the Islamists “hate our freedoms.”
The truth was that al-Qaeda – and many far more rational Middle Easterners – have long resented U.S. interference in their political affairs and U.S. exploitation of their oil resources, with the wealth going disproportionately to a corrupt Arab elite protected by U.S. military and security forces.
But such an analysis was largely off the table as Bush used the post-9/11 surge in patriotism to lead the American people into a war in Iraq, though that country had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
In decrying brutal American policies – from the history of Indian genocide and African slavery to more recent cases like Hiroshima, Vietnam and Iraq – Rev. Wright was making the argument that a just God would not “bless” these sorts of actions, but would condemn or “damn” them.
Wright also appeared to view himself in the context of an Old Testament prophet, like his namesake Jeremiah who was known for confronting the Israelites with dire warnings about God’s wrath and impending disasters.
Though it’s understandable why many Americans would recoil at Rev. Wright’s harsh language, it is true that the Bush administration took advantage of their patriotic sentiments to justify a whole range of aggressive acts.
Behind all the flag-waving and the “freedom fries,” Bush authorized the torture of prisoners, the unprovoked invasion of Iraq, a sustained assault on the U.S. Constitution, and a massive raid on the U.S. Treasury.
Many Democrats inside Clinton’s campaign, such as author Sidney Blumenthal, are well aware of how President Bush exploited this patriotism of 9/11 to achieve his extraordinary assertion of Executive power.
In the past, many of these Clinton Democrats also expressed a profound disgust when Bush and his subordinates insinuated that Americans who opposed him were un-American. Nevertheless, the Clinton campaign sanctioned similar lines of attack on Obama.
Besides the touchy issues of race and 9/11, the Clinton campaign also saw an opening in the old wound of the Vietnam War.
During that long conflict, U.S. politicians injected massive American firepower into the midst of an anti-colonial war that had evolved into a civil war between rival Vietnamese factions. Millions of Indochinese and some 58,000 American soldiers died in the conflict.
The historical evidence now shows that President Lyndon Johnson’s decisions were driven, in part, by fear that he would be blamed for “losing Indochina” much as Sen. Joe McCarthy blamed an earlier generation of Democrats for “losing China.”
In the 1960s, the U.S. government also viewed communism as a monolith, failing to appreciate the coming Sino-Soviet split or the nationalism that inspired much of the Vietnamese resistance to French and then American domination.
As President Johnson pushed forward into the bloody Vietnam quagmire, the American people also splintered into angry factions, some backing the war and some doing what they could to end it. In 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. threw his moral weight on the anti-war side, calling the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Few Americans who lived through that difficult era (if they are being honest with themselves) would say that their reactions to the war were perfect.
Some soldiers returned angry at what their government had made them do; many parents whose sons died questioned whether the sacrifice was worth it; anti-war protesters engaged in excesses both in language and in deed; politicians faulted their lack of courage and foresight.
Some young people reacted to the violence in Vietnam – and the refusal of the U.S. government to stop the war – by turning to anarchy or trying to “bring the war home” through violent acts within the United States. William Ayers was such a person, joining the Weather Underground and backing its domestic bombing campaign.
When I first heard about the Clinton campaign’s “oppo” plans last December, the “Ayers theme” was already in the mix (along with Rev. Wright and Obama’s mother), all supposedly raising doubts about Obama’s patriotism.
To this day, Ayers, now an aging college professor living in Chicago, remains unrepentant about his overall Vietnam-era stand, although he admits regretting some of his actions and acknowledges errors in his thinking.
Clearly, however, Obama had nothing to do with Ayers’s behavior during the Vietnam War when Obama was still a child. Ayers did support Obama’s early candidacy for the state senate and did serve with Obama on the Woods Fund of Chicago, a philanthropy that supports anti-poverty efforts.
But it was stretch to suggest that a tenuous connection to Ayers implicated Obama in Ayers’s actions during the Vietnam War or his lack of remorse. Nevertheless, the Clinton operatives did their best to push this theme.
When the Ayers theme failed to catch on with the major news media at the start of the primary season, Clinton surrogates didn’t give up. They took the attack line to right-wing talk radio and the Internet where it was kept alive. Among others, Fox News’ Sean Hannity demanded that Obama be pressed on questions about Ayers.
The Clinton campaign’s doggedness paid off on at the April 16 debate in Philadelphia when ABC News moderator George Stephanopoulos framed the Ayers question much as the Clinton campaign and the right-wing media have, suggesting some dangerous association between Obama and a mad bomber.
Stephanopoulos even depicted Ayers as someone who had taken pleasure in the 9/11 attacks, saying: “In fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in the New York Times saying, ‘I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.’”
Obama was left protesting how the ABC moderators were conducting a debate largely devoid of policy substance and focused on silly distractions.
“The notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense, George,” Obama responded.
“So this kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow – somehow their ideas could be attributed to me – I think the American people are smarter than that. They’re not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn’t.”
At this point, Sen. Clinton could have demurred, but instead chose to pile on. (After all, her campaign has been flogging this theme for months behind the scenes.) She also couldn’t resist pushing the 9/11 hot button.
“If I’m not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this [Woods Fund of Chicago] board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York, and I would hope to every American, because they were published on 9/11 and he said he was just sorry they hadn’t done more. And what they did was set bombs and in some instances people died,” Clinton said.
In their comments, both Clinton and Stephanopoulos led viewers to believe that Ayers had either hailed the 9/11 attacks or used the 9/11 tragedy as a ghoulish opportunity to suggest that more bombings were desirable.
But that wasn’t true. The offensive comment that Clinton and Stephanopoulos referred to was from an interview about a memoir that Ayers published earlier in 2001. The comment was included in a New York Times article that appeared in the newspaper’s Sept. 11, 2001, edition.
As Sen. Clinton and Stephanopoulos surely knew, that edition went to press on Sept. 10, hours before the 9/11 attacks. In other words, the Ayers comment had no relationship to the 9/11 attacks.
What Clinton and Stephanopoulos did was what lawyers refer to as “prejudicial” – they introduced an emotional component, 9/11, in a deceptive way to elicit a visceral reaction from those listening.
After the debate, the New York Times published a fact-checking article that noted the time discrepancy between Ayers’s comment and 9/11:
“Mr. Ayers did not make the remarks after the attacks on the World Trade Center that day. The interview had been conducted earlier, in connection with a memoir that he had published, Fugitive Days, and he was referring to his experience in the Weather Underground.” [New York Times, April 17, 2008]
During the debate, in response to Sen. Clinton’s piling on, Obama pointed out that her husband had done more for ex-members of the Weather Underground than he had.
“By Sen. Clinton’s own vetting standards, I don’t think she would make it, since President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act,” Obama said.
But Sen. Clinton clearly had gotten the better of Obama at the debate. With Obama reeling under the negative attacks, Clinton rolled to a near 10-percentage point win in Pennsylvania and polls began to show that more voters had poor opinions of Obama.
Ties to Radicals
Ironically, however, the Clintons appear to have much closer ties to Vietnam War-era radicals and old-time leftists than Obama does, even as they press this line of attack against him.
Journalist Carl Bernstein – who wrote a biography of Sen. Clinton entitled A Woman in Charge – noted in an article at HuffingtonPost.com that some political observers have criticized the Clinton campaign’s use of Ayers against Obama as “McCarthyism” and “guilt by association.” Bernstein then added:
“Whatever name it is called, Hillary Clinton, perhaps better than any contemporary political figure of our time, knows the insidious nature of this kind of guilt by association, for she (like Bill Clinton) has been a victim of it herself over a political lifetime.
”Precisely because she knows the destructive power of such assertions and how unfair they can be, she has sought for a quarter-century to hide and minimize her own activities, associations, student fascination, and personal history with the radical Left. Those associations -- logical, explicable, and (her acolytes have always maintained) even character-building in the context of the times -- are far more extensive than any radical past that has come to be known about Barack Obama.
”Which raises the question: Is the Clinton campaign's emphasis on the Ayers-Obama connection significantly different or less spurious than the familiar (McCarthyite?) smears against Hillary, particularly those promulgated and disseminated by the forces she labeled ‘the vast right-wing conspiracy’ in the 1990s?”
However one answers Bernstein’s question, it remains an extraordinary fact that Hillary Clinton’s ambition to be President has overwhelmed any qualms about the hypocrisy of her campaign using McCarthy-like tactics against Barack Obama.
For a political couple criticized in the past for “doing or saying anything to get elected,” the Clintons seem determined to prove their critics right.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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