The Clintons and Race: What Goes Around...

Posted: May 08, 2008 12:01 AM

As the Barack and Hillary Show extended its tour to such off-off-off Broadway primary states as Indiana and North Carolina (coming soon to Puerto Rico!), it was inevitable that both sides would dust off the "playing the race card" script.

Recently, Bill Clinton was asked whether he had played the race card when he compared Barack Obama's South Carolina victory to Jesse Jackson's in 1984 and 1988. "No," he said in one of his typical outbursts of enraged self-pity. "I think that they played the race card on me, and we now know ... that they planned to do it all along." Then Clinton added to an aide - without realizing he was being recorded - "I don't think I should take any (expletive deleted) from anybody on that, do you?"

Oh, the ironies. First, Clinton's initial comments were entirely valid. Obama boasts enormous black support, more than 90 percent, and that's what put him (and Jackson) over the top in South Carolina. Second, while it's arguable that the Clinton campaign has, at the margins, played the race card against Obama, it's hardly been with much gusto, effectiveness or racism.

Indeed, Obama's spinners must be yoga masters considering how far they have to stretch to make their case. Betsy Reed, of the left-wing magazine The Nation, cites the Clinton campaign's reference to Obama's past drug use (raised most prominently by black Clinton surrogate Bob Johnson) and Bill's belittling of Obama's claims of anti-war purity as a "fairy tale" as examples of invidious racial politics.

Huh? Bill Clinton's marijuana use was an issue in 1992, and in 2000 the press went bonkers over allegations that George W. Bush had used drugs long ago. So why should it be racist to mention Obama's even more significant drug use? Likewise, the use of the phrase "fairy tale" wasn't racial. Even Hillary's entirely valid, but now-infamous, observation that it was Lyndon Johnson, not Martin Luther King Jr., who secured passage of the Civil Rights Act can be described as racist only if the standard for racism is reduced to anything that hurts Obama. Dubbing inconvenient truths as "racist" is poisonous to U.S. politics. Which is why I have so little sympathy for the Clintons, because it was the Clintons themselves who mainstreamed crying racism (or sexism, or, in the case of Chinese fundraising scandals, anti-Chinese sentiment) in response to criticism.

Throughout his tenure as both "the first feminist" and "first black" president, Clinton Inc. routinely ascribed political opposition to bigotry. At a conference on race in 1997, Bill Clinton famously wheeled on Harvard scholar Abigail Thernstrom - a high-minded critic of racial quotas - and bullied her with the question: "Do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or no?" The tactic was no less brilliant for its cynical dishonesty. (Among the problems with Clinton's ambush: Powell didn't benefit from any affirmative action programs, which weren't in place when he joined the Army nor even when he became a general.)

In 1999, when the Senate rejected his nominee for a Missouri judgeship, Clinton exclaimed that "the Republican-controlled Senate is adding credence to the perceptions that they treat women and minority judicial nominees unfairly." The Clintonites reflexively lamented how "angry white men" were standing in the way of progress, and even resorting to violence. After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton fingered the real culprit: Rush Limbaugh.

Then, of course, there was Bill Clinton's double-dealing of the race card during his impeachment struggle. As my National Review colleague Jay Nordlinger noted at the time, "Whenever Clinton gets into trouble, he reaches for black people, as if for a shield."

The first weekend of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton suddenly invited his old nemesis Jackson to become the family's spiritual adviser. He summoned black pastors, radio personalities and a battalion of black lawyers. Slowly - but oh so deliberately - the message went forth: Impeaching the first black president was racist. Rep. Charlie Rangel compared him to Martin Luther King. In response to the Starr report, Rep. Maxine Waters said that she was "here in the name of my slave ancestors" to thwart the racist assault on this honorary black man. When asked on BET whether Republicans wanted him impeached because of his affinity for blacks, Clinton responded, "It may be," wink wink, "that that's a source of anger and animosity toward me."

Newsweek's Eleanor Clift, the Clintons' reliable water-carrier, got the memo, saying of the all-white Republican impeachment handlers, "I mean frankly, all they were missing was white sheets. They're like night riders going over. This is bigger than Bill Clinton."

Hillary Clinton played similar games, of course, insinuating sexism when convenient. But even if she didn't, it's worth remembering that she wants credit for being something akin to a co-president in the '90s. Fine, it's her record, too.

It's no wonder the Clintons don't like it when Obama and his supporters cynically complain that attacks on him are racially motivated; they're dealing his own race card back at him. This surely stings as Bill no doubt sees this as ingratitude from a constituency he has long taken for granted. And we'd all be better off if this card were tossed from the deck. But make no mistake: Nobody should shed any tears for the Clintons.