Risky Business

I never thought Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-N.Y.) remark in New Hampshire last week — the one that referenced President Lyndon Johnson as helping to realize one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dreams by signing the Voting Rights Act — was belittling to the legacy and great work of Dr. King. Unfortunately for her, Hillary's remarks were paired with her husband's statement about Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) record and “the biggest fairy tale,” and as we have all come to understand in this campaign, she always pays the price when Bill flies off the handle. 

African-Americans didn't appreciate either comment, and significant political players spoke out forcefully on the record. The two statements that surprised me the most came from Donna Brazile, Al Gore's presidential campaign manager and a longtime Clinton ally who called Bill's comment “depressing” and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who told The New York Times from a trip overseas that he was considering withdrawing his support for Clinton because of the reaction the comments had drawn among African-Americans. Clyburn had flirted for months with the idea of endorsing Obama, even hosting him on a trip to South Carolina before, like civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), choosing Hillary instead. I don't know how many calls Clyburn received from Bill Clinton, but I am pretty sure Lewis's phone almost broke. Last spring Lewis hosted Obama on a trip to Selma, Ala., for the Bloody Sunday anniversary. The Clintons would have none of it, and flew down to speak from pulpits of black churches within blocks and to join Lewis and Obama as they took the annual march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as Lewis had that fateful day in 1965.

Hillary attempted to clarify her comments on “Meet The Press” Sunday, but I doubt anyone is listening, now that she has allowed — dare we say encouraged? — another surrogate to hint at Obama's drug use. Remember Billy Shaheen? He was the national co-chairman who was fired by the Clintons for alluding to Obama's drug use as a potential liability in the general election. His wife happens to be the former governor of New Hampshire, and though she hadn't officially endorsed Clinton, her establishment played a significant role in Hillary's stunning comeback there. Now that Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson said this weekend: “I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood — and I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in the book — when they have been involved,” will Hillary fire him too? Johnson later denied any reference to drugs, which Obama acknowledged using during his youth in one of his books. Johnson issued a statement saying he was referring to Obama's work as a community organizer in Chicago.

Are we now to believe that “community organizer” is a dirty word, just something you don't feel comfortable saying? Am I the only person who believes that no one, absolutely no one except Bill Clinton, is given free rein to speak off script in HillaryLand? To believe this was a mistake would require, to quote what Hillary told Gen. David Petraeus, “a willing suspension of disbelief.”

As she “retools,” Hillary should make sure, the next time she trots out a high-profile black surrogate like Johnson, that he or she plays it straight. If Johnson pushes Clyburn to abandon the Clinton campaign, and cause further damage, the effect will likely be a politically fatal backlash that could push Obama over the top in South Carolina and heavily urban states like New York, New Jersey and California. If this kind of campaigning turns out to be a mistake, it will be too late to recover.

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