Checking Facts from the Democratic Debate in S.C.

Democrats vying for the presidential nomination engaged in their most heated debate yet on Monday, charging one another with numerous accusations and making bold claims about their own viability for the presidency. Brooks Jackson, director of Annenberg Political Fact Check, assesses the candidates' arguments with Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The economy, health care, Iraq - all were discussed during last night's Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina.

But Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spent as much time getting personal as they did talking policy.

For a little help sorting fact from fiction, we've got Brooks Jackson, director of the Annenberg Political Fact Check, here in the studio.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. BROOKS JACKSON (Director, Annenberg Political Fact Check): Hello.

NORRIS: Now, perhaps the most heated exchange - I know there were several of them last night, but the most heated exchange last night began with Senator Obama on the defensive responding to charges from the Clinton camp that he had praised Republican ideas.

(Soundbite of political speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interest to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shipped overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart. I was fighting these strikes.

NORRIS: Not long after that, Senator Clinton fired back with this.

(Soundbite of political speech)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): Yes, they did have ideas and they were bad ideas - bad for America. And I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.

(Soundbite of applause)

NORRIS: But from this, this question of appraising, not necessarily Republican President Ronald Reagan but his ideas on stage last night, Senator Obama fired back at Senator Clinton and said, you too have said nice things about Ronald Reagan. Is that true?

Mr. JACKSON: Right. Well, Hillary Clinton definitely has praised Ronald Reagan's political acuity, as so as Bill Clinton. But more to the point, when she says you - Obama - praise Republican ideas like privatizing Social Security, she is really misrepresenting what he told a Reno newspaper editorial board. What he said is that Republicans or the party ideas - we should become the party of ideas. He never - he said specifically he thought many of them were bad ideas.

NORRIS: And what did she say?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, Hillary Clinton is quoted by Tom Brokaw in a book that's on the stands now, quote, "he played the balance and the music beautifully." So essentially, she's praising his political abilities just as Obama was praising his political abilities.

NORRIS: And that's when the Brokaw book boom about the 1950 generation(ph).

Mr. JACKSON: Correct.

NORRIS: So Reagan and Republicans and Republican ideas aside, let's take into those personal barbs, particularly when it comes to the candidate's experience. First, Senator Clinton and that Wal-Mart charge. What did she do on the board at Wal-Mart?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, she was a board member. She was paid 18,000 a year for six years plus 1,500 a meeting; came away with maybe a hundred thousand dollars worth of Wal-Mart stocks. She says she was pushing for change. And there's New York Times story that reported on this and said, indeed, she did. Didn't accomplish all that much change. But she did push for it.

NORRIS: And that's something she talks about. She says that she was supporting the rights of women, women pushing the company to hire more women, pay them an equal wage.

Mr. JACKSON: Right. No record from what he can find that she pushed for Wal-Mart to unionize. That would be probably too much to hope for for anybody who's a trade unionist. But she did push for some change there. There's no question about that.

NORRIS: And to Senator Obama, what do we know about his dealings with this fellow named Rezko?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, this idea that he was somehow the consigliore of a slum lord is just non-sense. He did, as a young law - legal associate do work for - not for Rezko, directly, but for community housing group that was going to partner with him to put up some low-income housing. He says it was about five hours of work. I don't know if it was more or less than that.

He ran into trouble later. Rezko became a big campaign contributor. And along the way, became indicted. After which, Obama has given back at least some of that money - maybe all. I'm not quite sure.

NORRIS: Now, last night - I just want to move on to the third person who was on the stage last night - former Senator John Edwards speculated that John McCain is the likely Republican nominee. And he said that he, Senator Edwards, is better suited to stand up against McCain in a head-to-head contest. He mentioned specific polls that said that in a head-to-head contest, that he could beat John McCain. Is he right about that? Because Senator Obama is basically on the campaign showing us the same thing.

Mr. JACKSON: Well, this is something that is literally true but you really got to listen carefully. He said, in your last poll that had the three of us - and he's referring to CNN's last poll - that he was the only one - he was the one who beat McCain. And that's true - Obama tied. But that was in early December. That was the last time CNN had a poll that had all three of them in trial heats against McCain. The much more recent poll, about 10 days ago, didn't even have Edwards in it. And both Hillary and Senator Obama beat McCain handily.

NORRIS: Brooks Jackson, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. JACKSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: Brooks Jackson is the director of the Annenberg Political Fact Check.

One last political item to mention. Republican Fred Thompson has dropped out of the race for his party's nomination. In a statement, Thompson said he hoped the country and his party benefited from this effort. He did not endorse any of the other Republicans running for the White House.

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Fact-Checking Clinton, Obama's Political Sparring

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Democratic presidential hopefuls New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama spar during a Democratic debate, Jan. 21 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
second debate image

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton listens as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama makes a point during the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate, hosted by CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama have spent the past week trading accusations of fact-twisting and attacking each other's past jobs and voting records. The spat began Monday night, during the Democratic debate in South Carolina. NPR looks at the charges made by both sides and sorts the fact from fiction:

Did Clinton serve on the Wal-Mart board?

What Was Said: During Monday's debate, Obama told Clinton that while he was a community organizer in Chicago, "watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart."

The Truth: Clinton served on the Wal-Mart board of directors for six years, for which she was paid $18,000 a year, plus $1,500 a meeting. She also received roughly $100,000 in Wal-Mart stock. According to the nonpartisan Annenberg Political Fact Check, Clinton used her status on the board to urge the company to promote women and adopt more environmentally friendly practices –- although she never tackled the company's anti-union stance.

Which candidate admired former President Reagan?

What Was Said: Clinton challenged Obama for seeming to make positive remarks about former Republican President Ronald Reagan. Clinton's comments, made in South Carolina, with its large African-American voting base, implied that Obama embraced Reagan's economic policies — a damning charge, given how poorly a sizable portion of blacks fared during the eight years of the Reagan administration.

"You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan...and you talked about the ideas of the Republicans...I didn't talk about Ronald Reagan," Clinton said.

The Truth: Obama met with the Reno Gazette-Journal's editorial board before the Nevada caucuses, telling them he admired Reagan's sense of innovation, even if he did not agree with the substance of those ideas. He said:

"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the '60s and the '70s, you know, government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating, and I think people just tapped into — he tapped into what people were already feeling, which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism, and, and, you know, entrepreneurship that had been missing."

During the debate, Obama clarified his statement, noting that "Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda - an agenda that I objected to."

But Clinton has also expressed admiration for Reagan. In the book Boom! Voices of the Sixties, Tom Brokaw writes of Clinton:

"She prefers the godfather of the modern conservative movement, Ronald Reagan. He was, she says, 'a child of the Depression, so he understood it [economic pressures on the working and middle class]. When he had those big tax cuts and they went too far, he oversaw the largest tax increase. He could call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and then negotiate arms-control agreements. He played the balance and the music beautifully.'"

What was Obama's connection to an indicted Chicago landlord?

What Was Said: While she was busy fighting Reagan's ideas and policies, Clinton told Obama, "you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago."

The Truth: The Chicago law firm that Obama worked for as a low-level associate worked on a community housing project that was indirectly connected to Chicago landlord Tony Rezko.

Obama later became acquainted with Rezko, who became a campaign contributor to several Chicago politicians, including Obama.

In 2005, Obama and his wife also bought a 10-foot-wide strip of land from Rezko's wife; the land was adjacent to the Obama family's Chicago home. Some Illinois politicians criticized this land deal as an apparent conflict of interest. Rezko was widely reported to be under grand jury investigation at the time of the transactions, although Obama said this week that he had had no indication of any problems.

Obama told NPR in 2006 that he should have paid more attention to how that real estate deal looked, but that nothing was done illegally.

Rezko was indicted for trying to shake down investment firms seeking to do business with two Illinois state boards. Obama has given to charity more than $77,000 in past and present contributions that were linked to Rezko. Those contributions were to his House and Senate campaigns and his political action committee. None of the money was for his current presidential bid.

From NPR staff reports and the Associated Press

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