Clinton denies being racist

Somewhat unprompted, the former president manages to inject race into the presidential race by expressing anger over being labeled a racist.

Published August 5, 2008 2:10PM (EDT)

Following quickly on the heels of the dollar-bill comment flap in the wake of John McCain's Spears-Hilton smear ad comes another race-oriented story involving Barack Obama, this time from the Politico's Ben "King of the Mini-Scoop" Smith. But McCain is nowhere to be found this time because the story is about Bill Clinton's frustrations with having injected race into the 2008 primary between his wife and Obama. "I am not a racist," Clinton said Monday while traveling in Liberia. "I've never made a racist comment and I never attacked [Obama] personally." Smith notes that the comment from Clinton came in response to a question that "wasn't quite related to that subject," suggesting Clinton very curiously chose to bring up the issue.

Nobody is calling Clinton a racist, so the ex-prez can pummel that straw man all day if he likes, even if he has to stand that straw man up without any invitation or prompting. But, all his whining aside, Clinton did infuse the race card in a very subtle way into the South Carolina primary last January, because I saw him do it. Just three days before he made his infamous, spin-heavy analogy about how that state was won in 1984 and 1988 by Jesse Jackson -- a fact, sure, but one intended to create the impression that the Palmetto State is just automatically and thus irrelevantly carried by the black candidate even though Clinton himself won it in 1992 -- Clinton told a 90 percent African-American crowd in the small town of Kingstree (in the very second sentence out of his mouth after being introduced) how proud he was to have won their state in 1992, and how it was only his second win that primary season, and how crucial that win was to his candidacy, and how that win depended on the support of the very people in the room that day.

Translation: On Wednesday, South Carolina and its black voters matter because I won here, but by Saturday of that same week South Carolina and its black voters really do not matter because my wife is about to lose here to the black dude. This sort of revisionist and selective history was duplicitous and misleading, at best. Does it make Clinton a racist? Of course not. But before 2008, nobody loved the Clintons (and especially Bill) more in this country than African-Americans. That said, unless he now thinks they are stupid and unable to discern their own interests or properly judge the character of politicians and their behaviors, the wariness with which they now view him and his wife cannot be without cause.

And, you know what? It isn't: He and his wife earned those doubts with behavior like that in the run-up to the South Carolina primary. And, if I may say so, the sudden and inopportune interjection by Clinton of an Obama-plays-the-race-card insinuation from halfway around the planet Monday at a time when Obama is getting indicted publicly by Republicans and conservatives for playing race politics only confirms two things: first, that Obama is wise not to put the Clintons (yes, plural) on his ticket for 2008; and second, and related to the first point, that Bill Clinton always puts himself (and perhaps, though only sometimes, his wife) ahead of the party.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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Barack Obama Bill Clinton John Mccain R-ariz.