A series of comments from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, her husband and her supporters are spurring a racial backlash and adding a divisive edge to the presidential primary as the candidates head south to heavily African-American South Carolina.
The comments, which ranged from the New York senator appearing to diminish the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement - an aide later said she misspoke - to Bill Clinton dismissing Sen. Barack Obama's image in the media as a "fairy tale" - generated outrage on black radio, black blogs and cable television. And now they've drawn the attention of prominent African-American politicians.
"A cross-section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of some of these statements," said Obama spokeswoman Candice Tolliver, who said that Clinton would have to decide whether she owed anyone an apology.
"There's a groundswell of reaction to these comments - and not just these latest comments but really a pattern, or a series of comments that we've heard for several months," she said. "Folks are beginning to wonder: Is this really an isolated situation, or is there something bigger behind all of this?"
Clinton supporters responded to that suggestion with their own outrage.
"To say that there is a pattern of racist comments coming out of the Hillary campaign is ridiculous," said Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones. "All of the world knows the commitment of President Clinton and Sen. Clinton to civil rights issues - and not only the commitment in terms of words but in terms of deeds."
Referring to the King quote, Sheila Jackson Lee, another Clinton supporter, said Clinton was trying to contrast King and Obama, not to diminish King: "It really is a question of focusing on the suggestion that you can inspire without deeds - what is well-known to the child who studies Dr. King in school is that yes, he spoke, but he also moved people to action."
But other black Clinton supporters found themselves wincing at the Clintons' words, if not questioning their intent.
A Harlem-based consultant to the Clinton campaign, Bill Lynch, called the former president's comments "a mistake" and said his own phone had been ringing with friends around the country voicing their concern.
"I've been concerned about some of those comments - and that there might be a backlash," he said.
Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones, a prominent Obama supporter, echoed those sentiments.
"It's very unfortunate that the president would make a statement like that," he said of Bill Clinton's criticism of Obama's experience, adding that the African-American community had "saved his presidency" after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"They owe the African-American community - not the reverse," he said. "Maybe Hillary and Bill should get behind Sen. Barack Obama."
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., through a spokesman, used even stronger language. "Following Barack Obama's victory in Iowa and historic voter turnout in New Hampshire, the cynics unfortunately have stepped up their efforts to decry his uplifting message of hope and fundamental change.
"Regrettably, they have resorted to distasteful and condescending language that appeals to our fears rather than our hopes. I sincerely hope that they'll turn away from such reactionary, disparaging rhetoric."
Many analysts think Clinton won New Hampshire on the back of a feminist backlash against criticism from her rivals and the media, and now, after his own defeat, it's Obama's turn. Race is particularly complicated turf this year, however, in a contest that features two towering figures who pride themselves for breaking racial barriers in American politics.
The first is Bill Clinton, sometimes referred to as "the first black president," who now finds himself on the same uncertain ground as any other white politician speaking dismissively of an African-American rival.
He was expected to call in to the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio show, which airs in South Carolina, Friday afternoon, to explain his "fairy tale" comment.
And the second is Obama, whose 1995 book - subtitled "A story of race and inheritance" - was hailed as one of the most astute examinations of race in America. He has played the question of race with remarkable dexterity in this campaign, leaving little doubt among African-Americans that he's a member of their community, while delivering a message that excludes no one. To whites, he's made clear that he's a bearer of racial redemption, not racial grievance, even extending public absolution during a televised debate to a rival, Sen. Joe Biden, for past racially charged remarks. Tolliver said Obama had no personal reaction to Clinton's remarks and was focused on his own message of "hope." But he's spoken in the past of the risk of falling into old narratives of racial division.
"I think America is still caught in a little bit of a time warp: The narrative of black politics is still shaped by the '60s and black power," he told Newsweek this summer. "That is not, I think, how most black voters are thinking. I don't think that's how most white voters are thinking. I think that people are thinking about how to find a job, how to fill up the gas tank, how to send their kids to college. I find that when I talk about those issues, both blacks and whites respond well."
Now, though, some of those old patterns are reasserting themselves.
The series of comments Clinton critics' cite began in mid-December, when the chairman of Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire campaign, Bill Shaheen, speculated about whether Obama had ever dealt drugs. In the final days of the New Hampshire campaign, however, the discomfort of some black observers intensified as Bill Clinton dismissed the contrast between Obama's judgment on the war and Clinton's as a "fairy tale" and spoke dismissively of his short time in the Senate. And the candidate herself, in an interview with Fox News, stressed the role of President Lyndon Johnson, over Martin Luther King Jr., in the civil rights movement.
"I would point to the fact that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done," she said, in response to a question about how her dismissive attitude toward Obama's "false hopes" would have applied to the civil rights movement. "That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished."
An aide later said Clinton didn't intend to diminish King, and later that day she went out of her way to stress his accomplishment and courage in leading a movement.
Then, when Obama lost New Hampshire, the first question on black media outlets like "The Tom Joyner Show" was whether white racism had defeated him, and when a Clinton supporter, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, said - though not directly in connection to Obama - that politicians can't "shuck and jive" in early-primary states, it only added fuel to the fire.
Thursday, a key player in black South Carolina politics, Rep. Jim Clyburn, told The New York Times he'd consider endorsing Obama in response to what he considered a lack of respect in the Clinton campaign's approach to Obama.
"For him to go after Obama, using a 'fairy tale,' calling him as he did last week, it's an insult. And I will tell you, as an African-American, I find his tone and his words to be very depressing," Donna Brazile, a longtime Clinton ally who is neutral in this race, said on CNN earlier this week.
Asked in an e-mail from Politico about the situation Friday, she responded by sending over links to five cases in which the Clintons and their surrogates talked about Obama, along with a question: "Is Clinton using a race-baiting strategy against Obama?"
Brazile later said she wasn't intending to raise the question herself, just to pass on a question that was being asked by others.
The black blogosphere was even less diplomatic, with the widely read site MediaTakeOut calling Clinton's comment on King "explosive" and the blog Jack and Jill Politics saying it "pretty much solidified the image that, whatever happened in the '90s, you are now some out-of-touch rich white folks."
"There's a concern about that kind of stuff - especially in the black community," said Bill Perkins, a New York state senator who is among Obama's leading supporters in Clinton's home state. "The dynamic changed in New Hampshire, and all these little mistakes contribute to the general sense that this isn't a mistake."
Clinton's supporters dismiss the hubbub as the Obama campaign's strategy to woo African-American supporters in South Carolina.
"Some of the Obama people are clearly trying to use Hillary's comments about Martin Luther King and distort them into something she did not say, which is outrageous," said former Pennsylvania Rep. William Gray. "It's a hot issue in South Carolina, and they're spreading the word all over. I hope that the good senator will make sure that none of his people are doing that. We don't need to have a debate about race or gender."
Obama's national spokesman, Bill Burton, wouldn't comment on Gray's assertion.
"Voters have to decide for themselves what they think about those comments," he said.
Clinton's campaign also released a statement from a deputy campaign manager, Bob Nash, defending the senator.
"The stress of the political season can lead people to say outlandish things, and we assume that this was the case here. With Dr. King's birthday upon us, it's important to keep in mind that his legacy is about the things that bring us together as one people," he said.
But Lynch, the Clinton consultant who is advising Clinton's South Carolina campaign, said he wouldn't advise Clinton to fight on this terrain.
"The more you kind of defend it, the worse it gets," said Lynch.
© 2007 THE POLITICO