The National Catholic Review
Sen. Hillary Clinton tried to trumpet her political prowess while disparaging the verbal skills of her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, with a lesson from history. Here is what she said: "Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act." Now, there is no reason to think that Hillary has a racist bone in her body. Nor that she would be dumb enough to race-bait heading into the South Carolina primary where 50% of the electorate will be black. The bad news is that she may have unintentionally dissed Dr. King not because she is a racist, but because she misunderstands America and American politics. The Civil Rights Movement was the outstanding event in America during the last half of the 20th century. It changed the mores as well as the laws of the land. It opened up avenues of opportunity not just for blacks, but for the rest of America which now benefits from the contribution black men and women make as doctors, lawyers and, yes, presidential candidates. Having a basic understanding of how and why the Civil Rights Movement succeeded should be a prerequisite for seeking high office. Yet, Mrs. Clinton seems not to understand that Dr. King’s words and witness were as essential to the success of that movement as President Johnson’s political skills. I am a huge fan of Johnson’s on this issue. When he stood before Congress and said, in his southern twang, "We shall overcome," he validated a movement prominent members of his own government had but recently considered subversive. But, Johnson stood before Congress because he had to. The brutality at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama the week before tipped the political scales in Washington. The years of heroic, non-violent struggle had reached the point where the political will of the nation demanded the passage of the Civil Rights Act. No one knows if that law could have passed without Johnson’s political power. But it never would have been introduced but for the prophetic call to America to live out the true meaning of its creed issued by Dr. King in words and deed. Sen. Clinton seems not to grasp how the moral vision of King required the political action of Johnson. A feminist first, she has spent the years since Roe v. Wade insisting that "you can’t legislate morality" which is precisely what the Civil Rights Movement did. Remember, it was the segregationists who invoked their right to privacy in defending Jim Crow! But, I suspect the root of Sen. Clinton’s misunderstanding is not in history. It is in herself. She sees electoral politics, the art of moral suasion, as something you do in order to gain power. The two are distinct and separate. Liberal Democrats have had to think this way since Ronald Reagan when, year after year, the electorate has rejected their vision. A Democratic operative once said to me, "You do what it takes to get in; then you do what you want." This worldview breeds cynicism, and it is part and parcel of the "old style" politics that voters are rejecting when they call for change. In comparing Sen. Obama to Dr. King, Clinton was trying to disparage him, but the joke may be on her. Obama, like King, may change the nation, not just the drapes in the Oval Office. Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 1/15/2008 - 8:10pm
I was nodding my head until you got to the last sentence. That was a cheap shot, and a telling one.