This year's Martin Luther King Day celebration was a wild and woolly collection of left-wing blather.
In Washington, showing remarkable feats of amnesia that he was ever vice president in a corrupt administration, Al Gore gave a speech claiming President Bush was a law-breaking president and his illegal actions a threat to the survival of our democracy, an extraordinary accusation for even this man to make, given the same policies were executed by the Clinton-Gore administration.
In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin announced that God wanted New Orleans to be a "chocolate" city again. When challenged that this might make him sound a little racist, he dug a deeper hole by claiming whites were the milk in his milk-chocolate shake.
Even in this stew of silliness, Hillary Rodham Clinton still managed to draw headlines for herself by marching into a Baptist church with Al Sharpton in Harlem and giving a fiery speech. First, Hillary sounded the same Clinton-amnesia notes as Gore, charging that President Bush's team was historically filled with corrupt cronies, that his presidency "will go down in history as one of the worst." But with Sharpton proudly looking on, she threw the race card on the table with a big, noisy thwack. "When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about." Bush is not only incompetent, Dennis Hastert is a slave master. Laura Bush was right. It was "ridiculous."
Had Trent Lott uttered those words last week about Democrats, today he'd be unhappily retired in Mississippi. But it was Hillary attacking Republicans, so the news coverage was very, very different.
AP reported the story first on Monday night, and the local TV news channel NY-1 offered footage for television, but the story was muted. On Tuesday morning, ABC and CBS offered little anchor briefs. NBC reporter David Gregory brushed past it briefly in an anti-Bush speech roundup on "Today." (He was the only one to just brush past it on the broadcast evening news.) The next morning, NBC's Andrea Mitchell touched it again, but mostly to note Hillary was standing firm and to spin it as a very average thing for a potential national candidate to say to excite a Democratic constituency. On ABC's "Good Morning America," liberal Sen. Barack Obama was asked very vaguely about the remarks, and underlined how Hillary was right that the GOP House displays a "further and further concentration of power around a very narrow agenda that advantages the most powerful."
If you think the networks were asleep at the switch, consider how the print media covered this brazen appeal to racial tensions. Quite simply, they just didn't want to mention the "plantation" or "worst president in history" remarks.
USA Today skipped it. The Los Angeles Times skipped it for three days before allowing one article, despite mentioning Pat Robertson's remarks on Ariel Sharon's stroke in stories on three different days. The Washington Post mentioned the remarks on page A-6 in a story headlined "White House Disputes Gore on NSA Spying." The New York Times skipped a day and then put the remark carefully into one sentence in the fourth paragraph of a story about how Hillary was delicately building a political network, while sharpening her tone against Republicans. Time and Newsweek just printed the quote, and U.S. News didn't even do that.
Cable television chewed the story over for a good day or two. The Democrats quickly caught up with a balancing spin: evidence that Newt Gingrich and other Republicans have certainly used the "plantation" metaphor against Democrats, often in reference to their firm grip on 90 percent or more of the black vote. This is a slippery defense, and the Democrats and CNN (redundant, I realize) know it. Context is everything. Mrs. Clinton used the metaphor in front of a foot-stomping Sharpton-assembled Harlem audience. It was designed to stir racial animus. It was a brazen attempt at pandering to Al Sharpton's radical constituency. Neither Newt Gingrich nor Tom DeLay have ever stooped this low. I dare anyone to prove me wrong.
What this episode reveals is that all the media's blather about Hillary "moving to the center" will go out the window the moment she hits the campaign trail. The left-wing fringe of MoveOn.org, Howard Dean and Sharpton are in control of the Democratic Party. She needs that base. She must appeal to that base, and she'll do it through shrillness.
So how can she pull it off -- hard left and centrist? She'll succeed if, and only if, the news media choose to ignore the former, and focus on the latter. The Sharpton episode demonstrates how that's to be done.