By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Liar, liar?

Yesterday’s New York Times coverage of Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s joint appearance in Selma, Ala., includes a couple of snarky references suggesting that each of them lied in appealing to African-American voters. Those references are, unfortunately for the Times (and for the candidates), based on not one whiff of evidence. In fact, the evidence cuts the other way.

First Obama. Times reporters Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write:

Mr. Obama relayed a story of how his Kenyan father and his Kansan mother fell in love because of the tumult of Selma, but he was born in 1961, four years before the confrontation at Selma took place. When asked later, Mr. Obama clarified himself, saying: “I meant the whole civil rights movement.”

Did Obama try to suggest that his parents met during the famed civil-rights protest in Selma? I can’t find the exact text of Obama’s speech, but Healy and Zeleny’s use of “because of” (as opposed to, for example, “at”) indicates that Obama was saying no such thing. And in the Washington Post, Anne E. Kornblut and Peter Whoriskey report Obama’s words thusly:

Referring to his heritage, Obama said that although his ancestors were not slaves, the civil rights movement inspired his African father to move from Kenya to seek an American education and eventually marry his white mother — “whose great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves.” “But she had a different idea,” Obama said.

“Something stirred across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks were willing to march across a bridge,” Obama said, explaining that, as a result, his parents “got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born.” Earlier in the day at a prayer breakfast, the Illinois Democrat said: “If it hadn’t been for Selma, I wouldn’t be here.”

That doesn’t even remotely sound as though Obama was trying to claim that his parents met in Selma. So why did the Times report that Obama “clarified himself,” as though he were backing down from an extraordinary inference? Sorry, but that kind of interpretative snark just isn’t fair.

As for Clinton, the Times’ Healy and Zeleny offer us this:

Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, recalled going with her church youth minister as a teenager in 1963 to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Chicago. Yet, in her autobiography and elsewhere, Mrs. Clinton has described growing up Republican and being a “Goldwater Girl” in 1964 — in other words, a supporter of the presidential candidacy of Senator Barry M. Goldwater, who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Got that? The young Hillary Rodham was a Goldwater supporter. Therefore she must have opposed civil rights for African-Americans. Therefore, she must be lying when she claims that she saw King speak.

Did Clinton hear King speak in Chicago in 1963? As Bob Somerby would say (today being a day for extra-careful attribution), we have no idea. But the fact that she was a Goldwater supporter in 1964 sheds no light whatsoever on the question. And there’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that she’s telling the truth. Take, for instance, this, from an online review of Clinton’s autobiography, “Living History”:

In the interlude, she tells of hearing Martin Luther King speak in Chicago, of being in the middle (as an observer) of the Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention in 1968, and her beginnings of questioning the system of limited women’s opportunities in America. Rodham was determined to achieve, and she made her move while in high school, serving in student government and becoming a political activist.

And here’s something from a 2003 BusinessWeek review of “Living History” and Sidney Blumenthal’s “The Clinton Wars”: “Dozens of stories provide bits of insights into Hillary Clinton’s complex psyche…. You see how a lecture by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. opened her eyes to civil rights …”

In other words, Clinton’s claim that she heard Martin Luther King speak in Chicago isn’t something she made up to feed the poor saps in Selma on Sunday — rather, it’s something she’s been saying for years. But you wouldn’t know that if you read only the Times.

Update: I was wrong about the Times and Obama. Read this.

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Borges suspended


Obama and Selma revisited


  1. Peter Kadzis

    Dan: Excellent points. I more or less agree with David Geffen’s analysis of the Clinton’s. But in their commitment to racial equality their triangulation is mitigated by principle.And as for Obama… Yikes. It seems as if the Times heard want it wanted to hear. The problem was that that not what was said. Rather inconvenient.

  2. Anonymous

    According to several Clinton biographies, her Methodist youth minister, Don Jones, did indeed take young Hillary and others to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak, among other trips to show them poor and minority areas of Chicago. They also met Saul Alinsky. She was a Goldwater supporter, but civil rights was one of the issues that drove a wedge between her and the Republicans, according to both the friendly and unfriendly biographies. Bottom line: You’re entirely right, Dan: This snark was unwarranged.

  3. Peter Porcupine

    but…but…How could a Republican be in favor of civil rights? It isn’t as if a Republican wrote the Civil Rights Act or anything…..(Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois) wrote the 1964 Act)

  4. Don

    You mean someone didn’t enjoy the pander-fest? I especially liked Obama’s use of Ebonics in the expression, “I’ve been here ‘befo’.”

  5. Citizen Charles Foster Kane

    And oddly enough Peter Porcupine, the Republicans saw a huge rise in their vote totals in the South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. You know what else? Southern Democrats were more likely to vote for the Civil Rights Act than Southern Republicans in both the House and the Senate, and Northern Republicans were less likely to vote for the Civil Rights Act in the House and the Senate than Democrats.Did you get that little nugget from Gregg Jackson’s book on Conservative Comebacks?

  6. Anonymous

    A Republican wrote the Civil Rights Act? How disingenuous. What does this really change against the evidence of history and current events?This sounds like a Sean Hannity screed where he claims against all documented history and current political reality that Republicans were the real civil rights activists. After all, Al Gore Sr. and Robert Byrd were Southern bigots at one point. Even Newt Gingrich doesn’t buy such selective garbage. He seems to remember the Southern Strategy, both past and present.PP: Accept it. You can’t cherry pick a few facts to argue against the obvious weight of history. You may be different, but if you lie down with them, you still wake up with fleas.

  7. Anonymous

    Maybe I’m misreading this, Dan, but your Washington Post example of the Obama piece actually bolsters the Times’ take: “Something stirred across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks were willing to march across a bridge,” Obama said, explaining that, as a result, his parents “got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born.” Earlier in the day at a prayer breakfast, the Illinois Democrat said: “If it hadn’t been for Selma, I wouldn’t be here.”

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 5:12: Go back and read the excerpt I quoted. You’re leaving out the preceding paragraph, which makes all the difference.

  9. Anonymous

    Weren’t Healey and Kornblut Globies?

  10. John Galt

    The skill of reporting what one sees in clear language dissolved from American press; while reporting “truth” requires divination, never actually found among the bipeds.

  11. Anonymous

    the truth is this is how reporters “get ahead” these days — how they get on cable and get picked up and so forth — by creating an artificial reality.

  12. Anonymous

    Dan: I reread the preceding passage and all, but now I think the issue is your original take on the Times piece is off. I don’t read it to imply his folks met AT Selma, but – just as Obama himself is quoted as saying in the Post story – BECAUSE of Selma. And that, the NY Times points out, is bogus because he was born four years before Selma happened. Gosh, I can’t believe I’m defending the NY Times. Blech.

  13. Peter Porcupine

    “Did you get that little nugget from Gregg Jackson’s book on Conservative Comebacks? “No, Mr. Kane, I got it from actually remembering the event. I also remember Sen. Dirkesen’s words – There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

  14. MeTheSheeple

    ‘m with Anon 5:12. The Washington Post excerpt makes the New York Times excerpt look accurate. Even if Obama isn’t saying his parents met in Selma, he’s clearly suggesting he’s a product of Selma. The Times was right to call him on the timeline, which simply doesn’t add up.Years ago, I was working in Griffin, Ga., when ABC filmed a miniseries there, “Selma Lord Selma.” The local Chamber of Commerce-type folks were ecstatic. Someone wrote the paper the best letter-to-the-editor I’ve ever seen, something similar to this:”How great it is that we’re able to film poor black Alabama of the 1960s in modern-day Griffin. Maybe if we removed the extension cords between houses and the pharmaceutical entrepreneurs from the street corners, we could film Reconstruction here, too.”Ouch.

  15. Anonymous

    Totally, thoroughly and completely off topic, but….Yesterday, my partner tuned in to 680 and found that, instead of the expected talk radio, he got some kind of game. (I presumed it was spring training, but I don’t know whether they’re into spring training games now.) Later, Howie Carr was on.My question is this. Is this an indication that Entercom is going to make 680 into another sports station? I would be shocked, SHOCKED! if they would interrupt Rush Lamebrain (that was his time period) for a mere sports game. (I’m being sarcastic, of course)–raj

  16. Anonymous

    If people would just bother to do their own research, they wouldn’t be so easily fooled by mindless blogs.

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