“I am not a racist,” Clinton said Monday in a testy interview with ABC News in Monrovia, Liberia, in response to a question that wasn’t quite related to that subject. "I've never made a racist comment and I never attacked [Obama] personally."
Obama himself never suggested that the Clintons had harbored racial animus, though his campaign did at least once make that case to the media, and some of his supporters overtly denounced the former president. Former Clinton aides acknowledge that Bill Clinton, particularly in comparing Obama’s South Carolina win to Jesse Jackson’s victory, all but invited the charge from Obama’s allies.
But regardless of the real meaning of Clinton’s words, and of Clinton’s long relationship with African-Americans, this is the rift between the Clinton and Obama camps that still cuts the deepest, and the one that may have the severest consequences for Obama’s White House bid. When John McCain’s campaign manager last week accused Obama of playing the “race card,” the Clintons or their supporters could have provided a powerful rebuttal. Instead they were silent, and in private, some even quietly cheered.
The depth of the anger in Clinton’s circle became clear Friday, when McCain’s chief strategist compared his candidate to Bill Clinton, and the Clintons seemed to accept the analogy.
"Say whatever you want about Bill Clinton, but it's deeply unfair to suggest his criticism of Obama was race-based,” McCain adviser Steve Schmidt told Politico, after his campaign blasted Obama for suggesting the McCain campaign would use his race against him. “We knew it was coming in our direction because they did it against a president of the United States of their own party.”
Clinton’s staff declined to comment, but her campaign communications director, Howard Wolfson, appeared on Fox News later that day to, in effect, back Schmidt up.
"I think the McCain camp watched our primary on the Democratic side very carefully and they know that any accusation of racial divisiveness can be very, very harmful for a candidate's prospects," Wolfson said last Thursday.
In interviews Monday, some former Clinton aides declined to discuss the sore subject at all, because they support Obama and don’t consider it helpful. Others would discuss it only on background. But several former aides said that being tarred as racists, if not by Obama’s campaign, then by his supporters, had left deep scars on a campaign whose top officials were black women.
“We were being considered a racist campaign, and it was very painful personally and politically for a lot of people,” said a former Clinton advisor. “People feel they lost the primary in some fashion due to that, and so there aren’t a lot of people rushing to inoculate [Obama] on that account.”
Indeed, some welcomed McCain’s frontal response to Obama’s vague prediction – quickly retracted by his campaign – that McCain would try to “scare” voters with the fact that Obama “doesn’t look” like other presidents, a variation on a line Obama had used in the past to (at times, accurately) describe attacks from the fringe and viral emails.
One Clinton aide said a recent Clinton conference call had featured another Clinton advisor remarking that “the chickens have come home to roost” -- in the form of McCain’s denunciation of Obama’s comments.
The advisor added that he didn’t think the majority of Clinton’s aides would indulge that view.
“If we don’t do rght by him it hurts her,” he said.
Officially, indeed, the Clintons are entirely on board. Hillary Clinton will campaign for Obama this Friday in Nevada and will headline an August 21 Obama fundraiser in the Miami area and rally as part of a pre-convention unity swing, according to people close to her.
Clinton spokespeople didn’t respond to a request for comment on McCain’s charge that Obama had played the “race card.”
An Obama spokesman dismissed the notion that there’s any meaningful tension between the camps.
“These are parlor games for the Washington crowd,” said Obama’s national press secretary, Bill Burton. “President Clinton is an asset to our campaign and we look forward to his continued support and help in the fall.”
But the charge of racism, and the damage to Bill Clinton’s legacy of racial reconciliation – one of his proudest political accomplishments – left scars that have yet to heal. The accusations began to fly in New Hampshire in December, when a prominent Clinton supporter, Bill Shaheen, suggested Obama had dealt drugs. The conflict intensified – in a manner explicable, perhaps, only by the hothouse environment of the primaries – on January 7, when the former president described Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war as a “fairytale,” and CNN commentator Donna Brazile said that “as an African-American, I find his tone and his words to be very depressing.”
Clinton drew sharper condemnations after his wife lost the South Carolina primary, and he compared Obama’s win to Jackson – a remark his defenders explained was literally true, but which even Clinton’s own senior aides found hard to excuse.
The thread, though, continued through the primary. When Senator Clinton mentioned in an editorial board meeting with a South Dakota newspaper that Robert Kennedy had stayed in the race as long as she had before his assassination, many Obama supporters took it as a dire threat.
On Obama’s side, much of the animus evaporated when Clinton conceded. And some in Clinton’s camp blamed Bill Clinton all along – not Obama – for the racial edge to the primary.
Most former Clinton aides, though, expressed mixed feelings about McCain’s effectively putting Obama on defense on the issue of race.
“I think the McCain campaign is doing the right thing by pushing back, and I feel slightly vindicated,” said yet another former Clinton aide. “But at the end of the day I hope it goes away pretty soon.”
Glenn Thrush contributed to this report.