"Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."
So said Bill Clinton in New Hampshire of Obama's claim to have been a constant opponent of the war. Clinton cited Obama's voting record, which was the same as Hillary's in his early Senate years.
Yet, for this, the ex-president, designated by Toni Morrison as "our first black president," was charged with playing the race card.
Clinton spent days explaining the "fairy tale" remark.
Came then the morning of the South Carolina primary, where Barack was rolling up a smashing victory. Bill volunteered: "Jesse Jackson won in South Carolina, twice, in '84 and '88. And he ran a good campaign, and Sen. Obama's running a good campaign."
That broke it. Bill Clinton was openly "playing the race card."
Now, undoubtedly, Clinton was trying to belittle, to diminish the importance of the South Carolina vote for Obama. But why is it racist to say what Clinton was implying: That, in a Southern state where a huge share of the Democratic vote is African-American, a strong black presidential candidate can be expected to do well?
Political history proves this. What is racist about saying it?
Aware of the truism, every political analyst was looking closely at the racial breakdown of the South Carolina vote.
Last week came Hillary's turn. After her victory in Indiana and loss in North Carolina, which pundits said rang down the curtain on her presidential bid, she advanced an argument candidates have used since primary elections began. "I can win -- and my opponent can't."
The argument was made against Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Hillary argued that the coalition she has put together would be stronger against John McCain than the coalition Barack has cobbled together.
She began by relating an AP article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.""There's a pattern emerging here," said Hillary. "I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on."
This shot Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post into low orbit.
"As a rationale for why Democratic Party super-delegates should pick her over Obama, it's a slap in the face to the party's most loyal constituency -- African Americans -- and a repudiation of principles the party claims to stand for. Here's what she's really saying to party leaders: There's no way that white people are going to vote for the black guy. Come November, you'll be sorry ...
"Clinton implies but doesn't quite come out and say ... that Obama is black -- and that white people who are not wealthy are irredeemably racist."
But Hillary was saying no such thing. Describing her coalition, she was implying that Obama's coalition -- a George McGovern-Jesse Jackson combine embracing 90 percent of African-Americans, plus liberals, students and cause people -- has less chance of beating McCain than does she and her more Middle American coalition.
Democrats, not liberal Democrats, are the swing votes who decide presidential races. Here Hillary beats Obama three to two or two to one, North and South.
Has she no right to make this argument? Can Brother Robinson explain exactly how Hillary can describe her Ohio-Pennsylvania coalition without using the dread word "white"?
Some of the reaction to the Clintons, whose once-universal support among African-Americans has crashed, is due to the immense stake black Americans have come to invest in the Obama candidacy. But some of this is something else, something more sinister.
They are setting limits around what may and may not be said about Obama. They are seeking to censor robust adversarial speech where Barack is concerned, by branding as racists "playing the race card" any who make Barack run the same paces as anyone else.
The Clintons are today victims of a double standard that has long been employed against conservatives.
Even African-Americans critical of Obama are feeling the lash. In Saturday's Washington Post article, "Black Community Is Increasingly Protective of Obama," reporter Darryl Fears writes, "Standing in the path of Obama's campaign has been dangerous" for prominent blacks.
Bill and Hillary have lost luster and sustained damage to their reputations because, in the Democrats' universe, such smears stick. The question for Republicans is whether they will let themselves be intimidated, as they too often are, from using legitimate political weapons to defend what they still have.
It is thus a sign of trouble ahead that John McCain declared the Rev. Wright off limits and berated the North Carolina GOP for bringing him up. Let your adversaries circumscribe the content of your campaign, and you usually end up losing your campaign.