My sanest conversation on TV, ever

After a great Lester Holt interview with Barack Obama, a soul-searching conversation about the media's role in making race central to the Democratic race.

Published January 26, 2008 7:51PM (EST)

This morning I had the sanest and most serious conversation I've ever had on cable television. It was MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski and David Shuster and I, at the end of five hours of expanded Saturday "Morning Joe" -- Joe Scarborough had already left for New York when I came on -- that had mainly focused on race and the South Carolina Democratic primary. (The video is now here.)

Just before my segment, NBC's terrific Lester Holt was on, and he aired a clip of an interview he did with Barack Obama. I don't have the transcript yet, and I wasn't taking notes, I was listening through an earpiece, but it was really fascinating. Obama, like former President Clinton, said it was the media that made race such a huge issue in the campaign. But unlike Clinton, he didn't do it with a lot of finger wagging and a "Shame on you," he did it calmly, and with some irony, also noting that "early in this campaign everybody was asking am I black enough."

In my segment, I pointed to the agreement between Obama and Clinton about the role of media in hyping the campaign's often-ugly racial narrative, and we had a fascinating, soul-searching discussion about how we all are covering this historic election. I reminded Mika that the first time I'd ever heard the now-infamous Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Lyndon Baines Johnson quote from Hillary Clinton, it was on MSNBC with her and Scarborough, the day of the New Hampshire primary Jan. 8. And none of us listening then saw it as a racial remark; we all thought she was politically crazy to compare herself to LBJ, a president who got mired in Vietnam and didn't stand for reelection in 1968. (To be fair, all three of us are white, but I didn't talk to a single African-American, or hear anyone on television, complaining it was a racial low blow that day.)

Then Clinton won New Hampshire, unexpectedly, and commentators began hinting ominously, with zero evidence, of a "Bradley effect," the possibility that white voters lied to pollsters (as they did when Tom Bradley ran for California governor), saying they supported the black candidate when they did not. Next we were hearing that Clinton's MLK/LBJ remarks had been racially insensitive, a way to diminish both King and Obama. I took that question on myself, here, in a post last Saturday:

"Hillary Clinton has already tried to clarify her tin-eared remarks about how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. needed Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act. True and tin-eared at the same time. Nobody wants to hear white people saying black people wouldn't have gotten their civil rights without us. Blech. Clearly, Johnson spent political capital to do what he did, but he'd never have been there without the sacrifice and energy and brilliance of untold black activists and strategists, King being the most famous. There's been an endless debate over whether Clinton's infamous teary moment was born of exhaustion, but I think she and the campaign should find a way to say the LBJ quote was in fact the campaign's running-on-fumes low moment, and she should come back at it another way in South Carolina."

But the continuing controversy continues to make me think more deeply about the way we talk and write and report about race. After today's MSNBC appearance, a reader wrote me privately (I got permission to share some of her thoughts but not her name).

"As a black woman, always a Democrat, let me tell you what Hillary said to me about Martin Luther King. Martin may have fought for civil rights, but without President Johnson, the white man, the law would have never been passed. How about, if it weren't for Martin, Johnson would have had nothing to pass?"

As I wrote back, that's not so different from my take, above, on why Clinton's remarks were tin-eared. I understand how someone could hear Clinton as diminishing King with her quote (especially the sound-bite version; the entire speech in which she made those remarks is actually much more defensible, and an interesting discussion about the dynamics of political change). The same goes for her husband's "fairy tale" remarks about Obama and Iraq. But because someone hears it that way, does that mean Clinton was using racial coding? (Earlier on MSNBC, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn suggested the answer was yes.) And even if we accept that the Clintons weren't intentionally using racial coding, are they guilty of insensitivity for not foreseeing how her remarks might be taken by some African-Americans, since Hillary is running against the first viable black presidential candidate ever?

I think that's a pretty unfair standard, and one that, if it was enforced on every candidate, would make for some pretty dreary and unenlightening campaigning. As I said on the show, should everyone who argues, for instance, that Clinton's years as first lady don't count as political experience, be derided as sexist? I don't think so. Clearly, this historic campaign is giving us all a little practice in figuring out how to talk about race and gender fairly and honestly, and that's going to be good for democracy. But we're not quite there yet.

Just as the Clinton campaign's complaints about the girl against the boys dynamic of the Oct. 30 Democratic debate backfired, I think the Obama camp's charges about being double-teamed by the Clintons, and some surrogates' claims that they're running a racially divisive campaign, have backfired on Obama in the short term. (Whoever compared the Clintons to Lee Atwater, for instance, should have gotten the Billy Shaheen treatment; Atwater's racial politics were so ugly that on his deathbed even he didn't want to be compared to Lee Atwater.) Voters like fighters. They don't like whiners. As I've said before, Obama is better than his campaign, and there is a lot of evidence he's learned from the last week. (TPM has more from Obama's interview with Lester Holt on this topic here.)

In an earlier letters thread, one reader took issue with my remarks today (you can read my reply here,) and complained about MSNBC's lily-white panels. I told her yes, the panels are normally awfully white (and male) but today state Rep. Bakari Sellars, an African-American Obama supporter, and Holt, also African-American, were the two panelists on just before me (Clyburn was on in the earlier hour, but I missed him while getting to the studio). I thought the three segments together were some of the best talk about race in this race I've heard yet. And it was no accident that it was set up by conversations with two African-Americans (plus Obama's thoughtful remarks on the topic).

I hope MSNBC keeps it up: Both the soul-searching about the media's role (including its own) in making race so central to this campaign, as well as the diverse panels. I hope we don't stop seeing so many black guests after the campaign leaves South Carolina. Even though it was a Saturday morning, I've gotten more mail today than after any of my MSNBC appearances, ever, most of it favorable (usually those who take the time to write are angry). I worried that it was all too much navel-gazing for television, but maybe television needs more navel-gazing, especially on this issue.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections