I’d like to thank Hillary Clinton for providing a hook for today’s essay…
Last Tuesday marked the 78th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr, an event we recognize today with a national holiday. With impeccable timing, Dr. King’s ghost also made an appearance this past week, in the Democratic presidential primary, as Hillary Clinton made comments which suggested that President Lyndon Johnson was more important for securing rights for African Americans than the slain civil rights leader. You can watch Senator Clinton’s comments as they happened here on YouTube.
Clinton’s comments, and the issue about whether or not her campaign has a race problem, have been debated extensively this past week. Reihan Salam’s “statist or racist?” post from The American Scene is one of the better commentaries on the subject, as he astutely recognizes that the Clintons’ top-down, government-action approach undervalues the role of a Martin Luther King Jr in creating an intellectual and political environment where legislative action on civil rights could take place. He says, “Clinton is undervaluing the role played by the ‘war of ideas’ and overvaluing the role played by the force of law,” and “That Clinton seems to think of LBJ as the more substantial figure betrays an ideological bias — the real work of ‘change’ is done by those who wield political power. Politicians ‘wear the pants’ in her vision of a national family. So if a moral and intellectual leader like King can’t hold a candle to the likes of LBJ, surely innovators and entrepreneurs and intellectuals are but bit players in the drama of life.” Frankly, the Clintons’ top-down perspective should be enough to dissuade any disillusioned conservative from voting for Senator Clinton this fall.
But I wouldn’t be as fast as Salam to dismiss a racism, or at least a racialized political strategy, in Hillary Clinton’s remarks. The narrative Bill and Hillary Clinton have been constructing since their mildly surprising defeat in Iowa has been that while Barack Obama talks a good game about “change,” Hillary Clinton actually has a public record of “35 years of change” because she’s been closer to the levers of power. The comparisons they’re trying to make are obvious. Barack Obama is Martin Luther King Jr: the African American with a powerful speaking presence but, in their perspective, a short record of real accomplishment. Meanwhile HRC is LBJ: the thin-skinned, short-tempered, arm-twisting Southern pol (hey — their narrative, not mine!) who actually “gets things done.” It’s a move to diminish Obama’s personal accomplishments comparative to Clinton’s — which, if we’re honest, aren’t all that different (seriously, Hillary Clinton has experience running government like Deanna Favre has experience quarterbacking the Packers). Likewise, when Clinton surrogates mention Obama’s cocaine use as young adult, it’s a move to cut off his cross-racial appeal and marginalize him as a candidate. Of course, media idiots like Joe Klein buy it completely, and when Obama calls Hillary Clinton on her LBJ remarks, he is the one accused of injecting race into the campaign. Classic Clinton rope-a-dope. Andrew Sullivan has been on this issue since Hillary Clinton’s initial comments and notes that it is having an effect.
Racial mistrust is still very real in this country, even if the days of widespread violence are mostly in the past, and because of that mistrust the Clintons may have stumbled on a way to marginalize and defeat the first African American candidate with a serious, realistic chance at the White House. I do hope that Barack Obama finds a way to keep his cross-racial appeal and win the Democratic nomination though — not just because it would mean the defeat of the Clinton machine, and not just because of the historical triumph of the first nomination of an African American by a major party, but also because Hillary Clinton is just plain wrong about Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. Politicians who try to impose their will on a republic from the top down without the public being prepared for it get kicked out of office, and rightly so. Men (and women) like MLK Jr are essential to seed the public mind with ideas of change and what a new, improved society can look like. The pols that people like the Clintons love so much can only reap what the visionaries have sown.
Or as a conservative might understand it, ideas come before consequences.
My MLK Day essay from last year: Whose Side Were You On?