Clinton and Obama Spar Over Remark About Dr. King
By PATRICK HEALY and JEFF ZELENY
Published: January 13, 2008
Escalating their fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Barack Obama engaged in a war of words on Sunday over Mrs. Clinton’s recent remark about the role that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. played in securing civil rights laws in the 1960s.
Mrs. Clinton made the remark last Monday as part of her latest political argument that Mr. Obama was an eloquent speaker but not a proven force for change, a description she is applying to herself.
“I would point to the fact that that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President 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. “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.”
In a combative exchange on the NBC News program “Meet the Press” during a campaign swing through South Carolina, Mrs. Clinton was confronted by the program’s host, Tim Russert, over her remark and the unflattering news coverage that depicted her as insensitive toward Dr. King. She and Mr. Obama are squaring off in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26, a contest in which black voters may make up 50 percent of the Democratic electorate.
“Clearly, we know, from media reports, that the Obama campaign is deliberately distorting this,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I think it is such an unfair and unwarranted attempt to misinterpret and mischaracterize what I have said. Look at what I have done my entire life. I have been working on behalf of civil rights, women’s rights, human rights for years, and I know how challenging it is to change our political system, and I have the highest regard for those who have put themselves on the line.”
Speaking to reporters on a conference call on Sunday, Mr. Obama refuted the charge that his campaign had been trying to fan the flames of black voters and party leaders about Mrs. Clinton’s comments involving Dr. King.
“Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark, about King and Lyndon Johnson. I didn’t make the statement,” Mr. Obama said. “I haven’t remarked on it, and she, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King’s role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act. She is free to explain that, but the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous.”
The third contender for the Democratic nomination, former Senator John Edwards, also jumped into the fray on Sunday, using the fight to press his continuing argument that Mrs. Clinton is an establishment politician who would not bring change to Washington as president.
“I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change that came not through the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King but through a Washington politician. I fundamentally disagree with that,” Mr. Edwards said before more than 200 people at a predominantly black Baptist church in Sumter, S.C.
Among those coming to Mrs. Clinton’s defense on Sunday was Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, who appeared at a rally with her in Columbia, S.C. He said Mrs. Clinton did not mean to take any credit away from Dr. King, who, he said, had led a “moral crusade” that ultimately had to be “written in to law.”
“That is the way the legislative process works in this nation and that takes political leadership,” he said. “That’s all Hillary was saying.”
Mr. Johnson then veered into a new line of attack on Mr. Obama, in which he appeared at first to raise the specter of the candidate’s drug use as a young man, a matter that Mr. Obama has written and spoken about candidly.
“To me, as an African-American, 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.”
The Obama campaign did not have an immediate comment on Mr. Johnson’s remarks, but a spokesman e-mailed reporters a comment from former State Representative I.S. Leevy Johnson of South Carolina, who said it was “offensive” for Mrs. Clinton to remain silent as Robert Johnson spoke and not rebuke his remarks.
“It’s offensive that Senator Clinton literally stood by and said nothing as another one of her campaign’s top supporters launched a personal, divisive attack on Barack Obama,” Leevy Johnson said. “For someone who decries the politics of personal destruction, she should’ve immediately denounced these attacks on the spot.”
Clinton and Obama Spar Over Remark About Dr. King
The Clinton campaign issued a statement later Sunday quoting Robert Johnson of BET as clarifying his remarks. “My comments today were referring to Barack Obama’s time spent as a community organizer, and nothing else,” he said. “Any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect.”
Mr. Obama made his statement about Mrs. Clinton in a conference call on Sunday as he accepted the support from Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the latest in a string of endorsements he has announced in an effort to bolster his candidacy in the wake of his second-place finish in New Hampshire last week.
“This is not an easy decision for me,” Ms. McCaskill said. “I have deep respect for Hillary Clinton. She’s a smart woman and a strong leader, but at this moment in history it is very important that we look forward with optimism and hope that we’ve not been able to gin up in this country for awhile.”
It was an endorsement that was aggressively sought by Mrs. Clinton, particularly because Missouri is among the many states holding a primary on Feb. 5. The Obama campaign hopes that Ms. McCaskill’s organization from her 2006 Senate race will be helpful to his candidacy. As with other endorsements, though, it remains an open question whether they motivate voters.
Ms. McCaskill’s praise of Mr. Obama, though, was effusive. She said she intended to help introduce — and defend — him to voters.
“A lot of people talk about his ability to give a great speech. And there’s no question that he is truly gifted by God with an ability to speak to people in a way that touches them,” Ms. McCaskill said. “To me, that is the whip cream in the cherry. To me, this is a man who has incredible intellectual heft, he’s a very smart guy with a wide soul who is not afraid to figure out a new and different way to tackle problems.”
Katharine Q. Seelye and Julie Bosman contributed reporting from South Carolina.