op-edNew York TimesClintonMississippi

I described this pattern on February 27, accounting for how the Obama campaign has cleverly played what I called the “race-baiter card”--and yet blamed Hillary Clinton.  These efforts, undertaken both by Obama’s own campaign and its boosters in the press, escalated after Clinton’s surprising win in New Hampshire and in the build-up to the South Carolina primary.  To recount the ugliness: Obama--through his national co-chair, Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.--accused Clinton of studied callousness toward the victims of Hurricane Katrina; his press supporters falsely ascribed her victory to racism among New Hampshire’s Democratic voters; the Obama campaign then went on to seize upon non-controversial and historically accurate statements by Bill and Hillary Clinton (as in the notorious Martin Luther King–Lyndon Johnson episode, fully discredited by Bill Moyers and others) and called them inflammatory race-baiting.

Now, in anticipation of the Mississippi primary, it’s happening again.  In Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island on March 4, as earlier in New Hampshire, the Obama campaign did not achieve the knock-out blow it expected and predicted. Indeed, just before those primaries and since, Obama’s camp started to receive serious criticism and scrutiny for the first time, over the candidate’s connections to indicted Chicago fixer Tony Rezko, and over the amateurish and revealing actions of senior advisers Austan Goolsbee, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power. The campaign has turned to double-talk and to stonewalling the press. And once again, it has lashed out by playing racial politics while accusing the Clinton campaign of playing the very same game.

Interpreting the Clinton 3 A.M. phone ad on preparedness and national security as a hidden appeal to white racism takes a remarkable bit of bad faith on the part of Professor Patterson. But the bad faith is not restricted to him alone. Earlier in the campaign, in speeches to black audiences, Obama mouthed lines generally believed to come from Malcolm X about how African Americans were being “bamboozled” and “hoodwinked” by white oppressors and Uncle Toms--except that the lines were not actually Malcolm’s but were scripted for  Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s movie. Now, in Mississippi, Obama is talking about blacks being bamboozled and hoodwinked again. Then, after Obama conceded that Clinton had nothing to do with the ridiculous posting on the disreputable Drudge Report of a picture of Obama in ceremonial Somali dress--supposedly an appeal to racial and religious fears--he now is telling the voters of Mississippi that in fact she was responsible for the photo’s appearance, and that she did it in order to scare people--a charge he well knows to be untrue.  In the televised debate in Ohio on February 26, Obama said that “I take Senator Clinton at her word that she knew nothing about the photo.  So I think that’s something that we can set aside.”

But on March 10 in Jackson, Mississippi, he declared, “When in the midst of a campaign you decide to throw the kitchen sink at your opponent because you’re behind, and your campaign starts leaking photographs of me when I’m traveling overseas wearing the native clothes of those folks to make people afraid ... that’s not real change”

The flip-flopping is bad enough, even if the press corps does not always report it. But the cynical race politics by Obama and his passionate followers, is toxic, not just for this campaign but for American political life.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton).

By Sean Wilentz