January 13, 2008

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About a month ago, the Huffington Post’s Tom Edsall reported that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign may be subtly, quietly targeting Barack Obama over his teenaged drug use. Ridiculous, said the Clinton campaign, who insisted Edsall’s report was baseless.

Shortly thereafter, Billy Shaheen, the then-co-chairman of Clinton’s campaign in New Hampshire, went after Obama on the issue, and publicly questioned whether Obama may have been a drug dealer. The Clinton campaign, to its credit, quickly forced Shaheen to step down from his post.

And yet, yesterday, another high-profile Clinton surrogate picked up where Shaheen left off.

Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, who is campaigning today in South Carolina with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, just made a suggestion that raised the specter of Barack Obama’s past drug use. He also compared Mr. Obama to Sidney Poitier, the black actor, in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” […]

“And 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.”

Clinton, who spent the day campaigning alongside Johnson and was there when he made the remarks, did not criticize or distance herself from the comments. That’s a shame, because Bob Johnson took a very low road.

Now, it’s worth noting that, a few hours later, Johnson issued a statement — through the Clinton campaign — explaining that he was referring to “Obama’s time spent as a community organizer.”

Johnson apparently thinks, or at least hopes, that everyone who sees his remarks is a blithering idiot. By Johnson’s logic, Obama was not “deeply and emotionally involved in black issues” while serving as a community organizer in inner-city Chicago, working with black churches. That’s the defense — that Obama’s noble efforts couldn’t even be acknowledged out loud. Please.

For that matter, let’s also not lose sight of the messenger here. For all the talk that Obama has hurt his own cause by referencing conservative frames on specific issues, Hillary Clinton was campaigning alongside Bob Johnson — a public advocate of Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security and an active proponent of Bush’s plan to eliminate the estate tax.

This Bob Johnson flap is, to put it mildly, disappointing. That Clinton stood by and said nothing was a mistake. That the Clinton campaign issued a ridiculous statement on Johnson’s behalf compounded that mistake.

If Clinton were willing to publicly criticize Johnson for his cheap shot, that would be a big first step in the right direction, and might even help lower the temperature a bit. Alas, given what we’ve seen, that seems unlikely.

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