Obama’s “New Politics” Inspired by Rush Limbaugh and Ken Starr

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Mr. Olshaker is a longtime journalist whose research on conservative talk radio is cited in The Republican Noise Machine, by David Brock.

In the closing days of the primary season, unity was finally achieved—between the Obama campaign and the most extreme elements of the GOP attack machine, who spoke with a single voice as they eagerly ascribed the darkest imaginable thoughts and motives to Sen. Hillary Clinton simply because she mentioned the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy. Just as remarkable, the Obama team was gearing up to resurrect the thoroughly yet fruitlessly investigated Whitewater controversy if the race had been closer.

While Clinton’s own less-than-graceful exit will be long remembered, the Obama campaign’s brutal tactics have left little impression and are likely to be lost to history, perhaps for no more complex reason than the media’s preference for a predetermined storyline of “hardball Clinton” versus “transcendent new politics” Obama.

As Zachary A. Goldfarb reported in the Washington Post, “Obama senior strategist David Axelrod dodged questions about why the campaign was still circulating commentaries criticizing Clinton [for allegedly invoking the possibility of another assassination] even after suggesting it wants to move beyond the controversy.” Axelrod’s interview by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” is revealing:

Mr. Stephanopoulos: “You say you’re not trying to stir the issue up. But a member of your press staff yesterday was sending around to an entire press list — I have the e-mail here — Keith Olbermann’s searing commentary against Hillary Clinton. So that is stirring this up, isn’t it?”

Mr. Axelrod: “Well, Mr. Olbermann did his commentary and he had his opinion. But as far as we’re concerned.”

Mr. Stephanopoulos: “But your campaign was sending it around.”

In fanning the flames of this uniquely vicious smear, the Obama camp cannot even claim to have acted in desperation in the heat of a close contest, since the race for the nomination was already considered over at that point.

Typical of many Obama supporters in the media was Slate magazine’s Emily Yoffe, who falsely accused Clinton of “voicing the possibility of the assassination of her opponent.” Ironically, an ongoing column entitled “The Hillary Deathwatch” has been one of Slate’s most prominent features for much of the campaign (even continuing after her concession). Would it have crossed their minds to run a daily “Barack Deathwatch” if it were the Illinois senator, not Clinton, running a close second?

Right-wing columnists gleefully joined in the fun that their strange-bedfellow allies of the left had started. Worldnetdaily’s Doug Powers, referring to Clinton’s “fantasy assassination,” wrote, “Hillary is hard at work baking Sirhan Sirhan a cake with a file in it. And …you may find Hillary hunched over a Ouija board in a desperate attempt to channel the spirit of James Earl Ray.”

“Progressives” promoting the image of what Yoffe’s blog called “Hillary’s hopes” for the murder of her opponent owe a debt to the pioneering efforts of radio-show host Rush Limbaugh, who, on March 10, 1994, urgently warned his audience, “Brace yourselves,” and then shared a report “that claims that Vince Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton .…” As recounted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Limbaugh’s repetition of an unfounded rumor has been credited (Chicago Tribune, 3/11/94; Newsweek, 3/21/94) with contributing to a plunge in the stock market on the day it was aired.” More recently, when Limbaugh described antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan accusing Sen. Clinton “of failing to challenge the Bush administration's policies in Iraq,” he said “she will not mention her again, ladies and gentlemen, unless she wants to end up in Fort Marcy Park. Mark my words on it.”

Similarly, Patrick Buchanan’s 1996 presidential campaign posted astounding “information” from the right-wing Media Bypass magazine on his website—that the Israeli Mossad, whose agents included the First Lady as well as Foster himself, had murdered Foster.
Before adopting the far-right strategy of ascribing horrific motives to Clinton without a shred of supporting evidence, many Obama supporters, including those in the media, already were in the habit of blindly accepting and repeating other conservative attack points such as labeling Clinton “polarizing”—without specifying polarizing statements or policies; and “power-hungry”—although every other presidential candidate obviously had an identical hunger for power.

The widely acknowledged fact that Clinton’s policies are similar to Obama’s did not stop Obama foreign policy adviser Samantha Power from labeling her a “monster” or popular liberal radio-show host Randi Rhodes from calling her a “f----ing whore.” It is difficult to imagine any prominent figure crossing the line of decency and calling Michelle Obama or First Lady Laura Bush a “f---ing whore,” yet the demeaning personal attacks appear to be business-as-usual when directed at Clinton.

Obama supporters also joined the right’s Clinton-haters in endlessly mocking her alleged “crying incident” (most memorably in Obama’s church, where congregants cheered Father Pfleger’s hate-driven theatrics as loudly as they had cheered Rev. Wright when gloated over the 9/11 attacks as anti-white payback). Like Al Gore’s supposed claim to have invented the Internet, the alleged incident simply never happened. In reality, Clinton got a bit misty-eyed and choked up when discussing her love for America in answer to a question. (Ronald Reagan and Oliver North used to do the same thing on cue, and far from being a negative, it was part of their appeal.) But the truth is easily drowned out by the loud voices promoting the myth.

Remarkably, had the race been closer, the Obama team was preparing to reach into the past and revive the ultimate right-wing line of attack. As Jonathan Weisman reported in the Washington Post on April 23, “a Democratic strategist familiar with the Obama campaign” said the campaign was likely to raise old issues including “Whitewater and possibly impeachment.”

The investigation of the Whitewater land deal of the late 1970s, begun by independent counsel Robert Fiske, failed to uncover anything significant, leading Fiske’s replacement Ken Starr to resort to looking for other kinds of dirt on the Clintons. As former Associate Attorney-General Webb Hubbell told the New Yorker, describing his own experience with Starr’s prosecutors, “They wanted to know about Hillary’s sex life. About the president’s sex life, and mine, too. They specifically asked if Hillary and Vince had had an affair.”

After a four-year, $50-million investigation, Starr released his 445-page report; it contained two mentions of Whitewater, no mentions of Travelgate, and 543 mentions of sex. The cost of the inquiry reached $75 million, with its focus still primarily on sex, when Starr’s successor as Whitewater independent counsel, Robert Ray, released his own final report in March 2002, with nothing significant to add.

How much time and money were Obama’s aides prepared to devote in an effort to succeed where the Whitewater independent counsels had failed? As for the report of the Obama team preparing to bring up impeachment, when was Sen. Clinton ever impeached?

“Audacity” might be a fitting word after all, but how exactly is this “breaking free from the politics of the past”?

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Michael Ivan Miley - 6/12/2008

This is something that keeps bothering me is every one harps on the good Rev. as an anti-white racist who hates America with his "God Damn America" speech. What he said in that speech was not anti-white hate speech, it was a historical truth, America planted the seeds of 9/11 all through out the Cold War. And 9/11 shows what happens when you mess around in a region that resents you for more that half and century.

I have various other problems with the article, but as I'm in a rush thats all I feel like commentating on for now.

Jim Cane - 6/9/2008

Regrettably, this commentary is incredibly misleading -- purposefully so, it would appear. Just a few points:

1. If I recall correctly, the "predetermined storyline" was not the one that Mr. Olshaker describes here, but one of Hillary Clinton's status as the "inevitable" candidate of the Democratic Party.

2. Note in paragraph 3 that the intent of Sen. Clinton's claims regarding her mention of RFK's assassination were not, in fact, in the original quote; instead, Mr. Olshaker has inserted them parenthetically. This may or may not be accurate; but what it does do is presume an understanding of the intent of those remarks when that is precisely what much of the discussion was about.

3. To that point, if Mr. Olshaker were to look at the transcript of Keith Olbermann's remarks on Sen. Clinton's mentioning of the RFK assassination, he would certainly find the following: "Not for a moment does any rational person believe Senator Clinton is actually **hoping** for the worst of all political calamities." In fact, Olbermann's comment was emphatically *not* a "uniquely vicious smear" because he at no moment implied that Sen. Clinton was invoking the possibility of assassination as a justification for remaining in the race. Instead, he was deriding the comments as incredibly careless given the public knowledge of security threats against her opponent, and then also berating Sen. Clinton for failing to fully account for her words as they affected all parties involved. Mr. Olshaker (and, one might add, former Clinton employee Mr. Stephanopoulos) seems to suggest that the Obama campaign was claiming that Sen. Clinton was sending out coded messages. They were not. They were pointing out that Sen. Clinton had just committed an enormous gaffe -- something that all political campaigns do with regard to their opponents.

4. Mr. Olshaker remarks that even pointing out this gaffe was somehow entirely gratuitous, "since the race for the nomination was already considered over at that point." Mr. Olshakers's use of the passive begs a simple question: *who* considered the race over at that point? If we were to accept the argument from the Clinton camp, the nomination race was by no means over at that point. On the other hand, one could certainly argue that the nomination race was actually over when Sen. Clinton failed to secure 20% margins in Texas and Ohio, and with even less doubt once it became clear that she had actually lost the Texas delegate race. By that marker, each of Sen. Clinton's criticisms of Sen. Obama following those contests were nothing but signs of desperation that could only damage Sen. Obama's candidacy without advancing Sen. Clinton's.

5. The rest of the accusations against the Obama camp that Mr. Olshaker raises in the article are either: a. actually the words of supporters rather than campaign staff or proxies (e.g., Slate or Randi Rhodes); or b. never actually materialized. In either case, it would hardly seem appropriate to lay these at the feet of the Obama camp; if we were to do so, then certainly Sen. Clinton's failure to issue a simple "don't vote for me just because you don't want to vote for an African American" would be more than fair game as a shortcoming of her campaign on an ethical level. The one exception to this is the comment by Samantha Power. On this point, certainly Mr. Olshaker understands that the "monster" comment was not based on policy but on the regrettable behavior of the Clinton campaign with regard to the NAFTA issue; and Ms. Power resigned from the campaign for her comments.

6. Mr. Olshaker seamlessly slides from mention that the Obama campaign was "likely" (Mr. Olshaker's word) to raise the issue of Whitewater and impeachment into Ken Starr's interrogation of the Clintons' sex lives. This is grossly misleading, of course. It is entirely reasonable, given the Clinton campaign's long-standing emphasis on electability and "vetting," that the Obama campaign would also raise the issue with regard to her candidacy *if* she had been determined to take her fight to the Denver convention. This in no way means that they were going to be interrogating the senator's sex life, as Mr. Olshaker implies, but that they might invoke the scandal-ridden Clinton years as a counter to Sen. Clinton's claims that she wielded a unique electability. Certainly, had the campaign invoked those scandals in that context -- and, keep in mind, they did not choose to invoke them at all -- Sen. Clinton might have taken comfort in her own response to Obama's complaints about the endless media loops of Rev. Wright: Republicans would surely unleash far worse attacks in the GE; and she might "get out of the kitchen" if she couldn't stand the heat. And, certainly, since she was claiming substantive experience based on her husband's tenure in the White House, the fact that the person with whom she is the closest political associate was impeached is a legitimate issue; the Clinton campaign, after all, attempted to make much more hay out of the much more tenuous relationship between Sen. Obama and Mr. Rezko.

7. It is worth noting, however, that the above scenario is *entirely* hypothetical. The Obama campaign did not, in fact, bring up Whitewater, etc., and Sen. Obama also took a pass on criticizing Sen. Clinton for what only the most generous assessment could only qualify as a repeated "misstatement" regarding her arrival in Bosnia. In other words, the bulk of Mr. Olshaker's article is dedicated to decrying a campaign tactic that the Obama camp never actually adopted. Certainly a strange premise for a commentary.

Arguably, it is this latter point that reveals that the entire premise of the piece is entirely misguided. Essentially, Mr. Olshaker seems to be making the argument that being prepared to discuss Whitewater and impeachment *but then not doing so* is somehow an indication that the Obama campaign is just as dirty as any other. What Mr. Olshaker seems to not realize, however, is that if you *look* at mud, *think* about slinging it at your opponent, but then *don't do so,* you really have no reason to wash your hands.

Jeremy Young - 6/9/2008

Those things were false about Hillary Clinton in the 1990's; they are true about her today.

The Clintons have truly become the people the Republicans always thought they were. I see nothing wrong with Obama pointing that out.