Last Weekend’s Political Whopper

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This is the season of political whoppers–apparent falsehoods told in the public sphere with a straight face. The pols and their assassin surrogates twist and turn the truth to the breaking point. They aim for the kneecaps while pretending to reach for the stars. There are gradations of awfulness, but as a rule, no campaign is above the fray. (On this topic, I posted a story last night about what is happening among the Republicans in South Carolina.)

Now the question of the day: Has there been a bigger whopper than the one now being peddled by the Clinton campaign? Yesterday, here in South Carolina, Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, hit back against suggestions by supporters of Barack Obama that Hillary Clinton was not sensitive to the concerns of black Americans.

“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–when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood that I won’t say what he was doing but he said it in his book–when they have been involved.”

This has all the appearances of a reference to Obama’s past drug use, which he discussed openly (and a bit regretfully) in his book. But Johnson and the Clinton campaign are shocked–shocked!–that anyone would expect to find gambling in the casino. Johnson issued this statement through the campaign:

“My comments today were referring to Barack Obama’s time spent as a community organizer, and nothing else. Any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect. When Hillary Clinton was in her twenties she worked to provide protections for abused and battered children and helped ensure that children with disabilities could attend public school. That results oriented leadership — even as a young person — is the reason I am supporting Hillary Clinton.”

Then, as The Page reports, Bill Clinton said the campaign is taking Johnson “at his word.” But should anyone else? Go back to the original quote. It only makes sense as a statement comparing two different things, involvement and noninvolvement. On the one side, there is Hillary and Bill Clinton’s deep and emotional commitment to black issues. On the other side there is whatever unspeakable thing Barack Obama wrote about in his book.

Now let’s assume for a moment that Johnson misspoke. Maybe he suddenly wanted to praise Obama for his community organizing work in the middle of a speech that repeatedly attacked Obama. Does he not realize that his words were misleading? Doesn’t he want to clear up the confusion? No. He calls those who assume the most obvious meaning “irresponsible and incorrect.” That’s how the game is played.

UPDATE: MSNBC is running the Johnson clip over and over again today, with the teaser that the controversy is “raising questions about race in the campaign.” I think it’s important to separate the issues, which some of you in the comment thread are already doing. There is the issue of race, which will continue to increase in the coming weeks. (And yes, I think it is pretty groundless to say that the Clinton family history shows a lack of respect for black voters or issues important to them.) There is also the issue of political poppycock, which is the subject of this post. Johnson said what he said, and now he is saying that he never said it. What’s worse, this is the third time–after Billy Shaheen in New Hampshire and Mark Penn on Hardball–that a Clinton surrogate has called attention to Obama’s drug use.