Recently the Obama campaign put out a list of strange remarks that the Clinton campaign has made recently, in regards to race. I find such a memo interesting in itself since Obama has been good about not playing the race card so far. Frankly, most of the stuff on the list is pretty run of the mill subtexting, but this one about MLK and LBJ is troubling:
Clinton rejoined the running argument over hope and “false hope” in an interview in Dover this afternoon, reminding Fox’s Major Garrett that while Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on behalf of civil rights, President Lyndon Johnson was the one who got the legislation passed. Hillary was asked about Obama’s rejoinder that there’s something vaguely un-American about dismissing hopes as false, and that it doesn’t jibe with the careers of figures like John F. Kennedy and King. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” Clinton said. “It took a president to get it done.”
I know candiates are busy and have to say a lot of things extemporaneously, but that little statement is… well, again I have trouble deciding where to begin.
Kennedy called for the bill in ’63, probably with some pressure from LBJ, but the driving force behind the ’64 Act was the momentum of well over a decade of organized protest, much of it centered or associated with King. It simply would not have happened at all without the efforts of King and countless other activists, black and white.
One need look no farther than how the patchy weakness of the 1957 Act foreshadowed LBJ’s presidental ambitions in ’60 to make a more useful comparison. LBJ was a fully political creature, where as King, as Clinton should well know, wrote an open letter in 1963 explaining why political timing was not of much interest to him in regards to civil rights. Without constant pressure to act from protests, there would be no action. LBJ knew how to work the system like nobody else, but you have to have a reason or a cause for that skill to be useful. This acumen, which Clinton claims to also possess, is not a positive force in itself. Plenty of Republicans are skilled dealmakers, too.
Now that is not to say that King was not a political creature himself – by the time he started speaking out against Vietnam, certainly, his rhetorical role in American politics was unique – no longer just that of a civil rights activist, but almost that of a national conscience. Clinton’s comment seems to downplay the enormous power of King’s self-built bully pulpit – he was not a President, but a national figure of great, even equal promenience – and to suggest that Obama’s proper place, like King’s, is outside the Presidency.
In other words, her remarks could be construed as saying, “Keep preaching, and let the white folks handle it.”
That is a message that I would expect from someone in our other national political party, although, to give her credit, Clinton is being a little less blunt.