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Race in Presidential Race: Harmless or Offensive

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Race in Presidential Race: Harmless or Offensive

Race in Presidential Race: Harmless or Offensive

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Joining us now to talk about all this is NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Okay. So it all started with Hillary Clinton's comment to a Fox News reporter about the roles of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson - and these roles in passing civil rights legislation that happened more than 40 years ago. Did the two sides of this divide just hear the same comments differently?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that's right, Renee. I mean, it's an innocuous comment for lots of folks. On the other hand, it's a comment that could be easily perceived by African-Americans, minorities, those who have been at the lower end of economic scale as slighting the idea of black power, black agency to create social change.

But you know, for those who see it as innocuous, it is historically accurate. In July of '64 it was President Johnson and - I might add a Republican - Everett Dirksen, the senator from Illinois, white men, who put into place the civil rights legislation. But that came after the '63 march, James Meredith, Freedom Summer. But the comment diminished the role of King and activists, and I think that there was - it touched a deep nerve in black America about the ability of black people to create change. And Mrs. Clinton was trying to suggest that she is a doer while Obama might be just a talker, and that you need people who are doers, but it really did cross the line in terms of the feeling of black people that they're able to make a difference in their own lives.

MONTAGNE: Well, you say that, but could one argue that the Obama side is taking needless offense, as in making this something bigger than it is?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. And I think that they have been trying to fuel the fire, if you will, Renee. Representative Charles Rangel, who's the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, said this has been overanalyzed, you know, and he's looking for the white person who insulted him or any black person. John Lewis, the civil rights icon, now Georgia congressman, added that Obama is no Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy, people that Obama has been analogizing himself to.

And you know, it's funny, racially coded language, though, in the tradition of you-people or states rights, has created a pattern here. And if you look at what, you know, President Clinton, talking about Obama's stand on the war in Iraq as a fairy tale, a lot of people took it to be talking about Obama's vision of hope and constant mentions about the need for change, and then of course some of the surrogates talking about Obama's past drug use, this seemed to be a pattern of attacking or trying to take down Obama on race. And I think that from the Clinton perspective, they see Obama in some ways as an affirmative action candidate and frustrated with the media for not holding him to the normal scrutiny and checking out his small record in the U.S. Senate and of course his limited record, political record, in Illinois.

MONTAGNE: The controversy, though, has lasted for more than a week. Is that just because the media is interested or because people out there are interested or because one side here stands to benefit from prolonging it?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think both sides saw some benefit in it, Renee. From the Obama camp side, I think they saw the benefit and the short run of stirring up voters in South Carolina. The New York Times, for example, has a poll out showing that Obama is now leading Senator Clinton 49 to 34 among blacks. And just a month or so ago, Senator Clinton had a lead among black voters nationwide. And Obama needs the black vote in Nevada, South Carolina and Florida if he is to avoid losing to Senator Clinton going forward. So, you know, Clinton has defined Obama in a way in terms of race. And so there's the benefit to the Clinton campaign if she can limit him and make him more of a Jesse Jackson-type black candidate and not the transformative-type candidate who is able to cross over and be seen as someone who doesn't have any racial baggage. He - Obama usually does not talk about race on the campaign trail because he's seeking to make himself that transformative candidate.

MONTAGNE: But it seems as if it won't ultimately help either camp if they divide the party in this year where Democrats feel they really have a go at a presidential victory. I mean, is there a way for the two sides to climb down?

WILLIAMS: Well, Renee, this is where we started this morning because, you know, there have been statements now issued by the Clinton campaign. Obama said yesterday, you know, both sides are on the right side of civil rights, but Obama has said that Clinton's also trying to knock him off message, and you know, the surrogates are still going at it. But they both see that this could be something that divides the Democratic base, the coalition, going towards November '08.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

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