Everyone who reads this blog knows that while I've had my problems with President Clinton over the years, I argued that the 2008 primary attacks on him as "racist" were ridiculous, and I'm as sure of that as ever. The former president is a scrappy political fighter who wants to win, and while even I wondered about his invoking Jesse Jackson's victory in South Carolina to diminish Obama's, I felt calling him a "racist" was morally wrong and politically stupid.
Now Hillary is Obama's secretary of state and Bill is the president's lunch partner and advocate, from North Korea to "Meet the Press." Clearly Obama agreed with me, or at least thought the Clintons' racism didn't disqualify them from helping him. And both Clintons are working hard to do that. On Sunday, when David Gregory asked former President Clinton whether Obama was facing the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that targeted him, Clinton said an emphatic yes.
"Oh, you bet. Sure it is. It's not as strong as it was, because America's changed demographically, but it's as virulent as it was," he replied.
That's an interesting answer. I understand Clinton's distinction between "strong," as in able to shift votes, and "virulent," as in the ability to spread the way disease does. I think he's right. I wrote about Obama's sharp drop among white voters two weeks ago, and the fact is, he probably only lost the approval of white voters who hadn't voted for him -- his white approval rating has stayed roughly the same as his November share of the white vote, 43 percent. His standing with the folks who voted for him last year looks pretty solid.
But the "virulent" nature of the organized campaign against Obama is disturbing, and it's fostered by many of the same characters who targeted Clinton. Mostly they are disgraced GOP leaders and has-beens -- the abandoned former speaker and three-time adulterer Newt Gingrich; the forced-out-of-office and indicted Tom DeLay; the congressional failure but corporate-cosseted Dick Armey. There are also new crazies like Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, plus formerly dignified conservatives like Chuck "Pull the plug on Grandma!" Grassley and Jon "I don't need no stinkin' maternity care" Kyl.
I think that Clinton's attempt to remind the media that Obama is facing a tried and true GOP character assassination -- since they didn't have programs to counter Clinton's, or Obama's -- is very important.
But I'm also hugely disturbed that Clinton was used this past week by the dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks media as a foil for President Carter, after Carter bravely said that the opposition to Obama was spurred by at least some racism. "Bill Clinton: Carter Wrong on Obama and Racism," screamed the pro-Obama but often a little seasick Huffington Post. Other news organizations with no track record understanding race followed suit.
If you examined Clinton's statements about Carter's remarks, which the Huffington Post story did not, and genuinely tried to understand what he said, there was no way not to conclude that Clinton agreed with Carter. Even in the HuffPo and AP snippets, Clinton said, "I sympathize with" Carter's feeling that racism drives the most extreme attacks on Obama and "there's no question" racism is behind the most vicious anti-Obama outbursts of the last few months. But he also said -- and I agree -- that he believes that if Obama "were not an African-American, all of the people who were against him on healthcare would still be against him. They were against me, too."
And I completely agree with Clinton, but that doesn't mean Obama's opponents aren't coating their opposition with the sweet special sauce of racism. Obama knows that, both Clintons know that, and smart Democrats need to know that, ASAP.
I spent 2008 telling Obama-supporting Democrats that they would need to learn quickly from the lessons the Clintons learned painfully. It was great to find out that Obama agreed with me after his nomination, when he courted the Clintons, picked Hillary as secretary of state and worked on various fronts with President Clinton. I still think grass-roots Democrats and those in Congress need to look back at the Clinton years with a lot more candor and toughness than they've mustered so far, and remember that an administration that tried to buck corporate interests and transform our healthcare system was brought down, mainly by ridiculous, irrelevant issues, even while President Clinton's public approval ratings held strong, especially at the end of his term.
President Obama knows that as well as anyone else in his administration, but I think those who want to fight on the front lines with him in these next crucial weeks need to get it as well.