Loose Lips or Dirty Tricks?
Game Change provides more evidence of the Clintons' shocking behavior during the 2008 campaign.
The inevitable grumbling and grunting about the use of unattributed quotations in Game Change, the engrossing new campaign book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, has been accompanied by a more or less grudging general admission that nobody cited in these pages has so far complained of being misrepresented. To this suggestive point I would add, from comparatively limited experience, that where the authors discuss anything that I know about, they have it right. In fact, what they say is often less sensational than what they might have said.
Surely this is particularly true of the most notorious rapid-response operation in modern political history: the infamous Clinton team and its eager outriders and propagandists. I am astonished at how relatively little attention this has received. If the book is to be believed, then the following things occurred:
1) After his wife's third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, Bill Clinton telephoned Sen. Edward Kennedy in pursuit of an endorsement and, according to Kennedy's own account as given to a friend, said of then-Sen. Barack Obama: A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.
2) In a subsequent conversation, former President Clinton told Kennedy in so many words: "The only reason you're endorsing him is because he's black. Let's just be clear." (This last is given in direct quotes and not in reported speech.)
3) After Obama so handily won the South Carolina primary in January 2008, drawing more than half the state's white voters under the age of 30, Bill Clinton's comment to a reporter was: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here." Answering Obama's question—"Now, why would he say that?"—the authors conclude:
Clinton was comparing Obama to Jackson to diminish the former's victory, and to accomplish the blackening that Obama's advisers suspected was his objective all along. (The Jackson comparison circulated in Clintonworld the night before, in an email from Bill's former White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, which prophesied, "After Feb 5, Obama may prove to be a lesser version of Jackson.")
4) Mention of Blumenthal brings me to the next point of shock in the narrative, where by mid-May 2008 the Clinton campaign is foundering hopelessly and beginning to rely on the desperate pitch to "superdelegates." Two things then happen: Bill Clinton plays the race card even more crudely, and Sidney Blumenthal claims that Michelle Obama has been caught on tape using the word whitey. To cite Heilemann and Halperin again:
Bill Clinton's main assignment was continuing to make phone calls to superdelegates, in which he pressed the case for Hillary and against Obama aggressively—at times, too aggressively. Clinton's message, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, was that the country wasn't ready to elect an African American president.
And then there's this:
Blumenthal was obsessed with the "whitey tape," and so were the Clintons, who not only believed that it existed but felt that there was a chance it might emerge in time to save Hillary. "They've got a tape, they've got a tape," she told her aides excitedly.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Hillary and Bill Clinton by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.