Character Is Destiny
The escalating ugliness of the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign calls to mind two very different individuals who lived some 25 centuries apart.
In the fifth century B.C., Heraclitus taught this timeless truth: "Character is destiny." In January 1992, just weeks before the crucial first-in-the-nation primary, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, plagued by charges of infidelity with Gennifer Flowers, interrupted his presidential campaign to fly from New Hampshire back to Little Rock to decide whether to grant executive clemency to Rickey Ray Rector, who had been convicted of shooting to death police officer Bob Martin. Rector had then shot himself in the head, effectively lobotomizing himself.
Clinton denied clemency, and on Jan. 24, 1992, the state of Arkansas put to death Rickey Ray Rector, a brain-damaged African-American who, after eating his last meal, reportedly wanted to save a slice of pecan pie to enjoy "later."
The political significance of this gubernatorial decision was not lost on the Associated Press reporter who, mindful of the enormous damage Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had suffered in the 1988 campaign from the Willie Horton case, wrote, "This execution could help presidential candidate Clinton distance himself from his party's soft-on-crime-liberal image, said some political observers in New Hampshire ..."
Now, 16 years later, former President Bill Clinton, not content to be simply cheerleader-in-chief for his wife's own presidential campaign, has assumed the role of political executioner-in-chief. This time, Bill Clinton's nemesis is the young Illinois senator, Barack Obama, who reminiscent of John Kennedy's memorable line — "I am not the Catholic candidate for president, I am the Democratic Party's candidate who happens to be Catholic" — had brilliantly presented himself not as the black candidate for president, but as the Democratic candidate who happens to be black. Obama, the fresh-to-Washington reformer, won Iowa, which is 96.7 percent white, and ran a close second in 98-percent-white New Hampshire.
The emerging narrative was a grave threat to Bill Clinton's perceived entitlement to a third White House term.
That divisiveness was on display as the Clinton campaign set out to "ghettoize" the Columbia University-Harvard Law School Obama by seeking to twist his admitted youthful experimentation with marijuana and cocaine into misrepresenting him as a drug abuser and possible pusher.
The first dime was dropped in The Washington Post by the campaign's national co-chair, then — oops, cocaine! — on national TV by Hillary Clinton's most important campaign strategist, Mark Penn. Then drug use was brought again up by billionaire supporter Bob Johnson while introducing the candidate. The co-chair resigned, Johnson eventually apologized, and Penn continues to strategize. But the "heroin" of rumor had been successfully injected into the bloodstream of the nation's body politic.
Enter Bill Clinton, maybe the nation's most articulate, if least eloquent ("The era of big government is over"?) chief executive, who has by his criticism (Obama's election would be a "roll of the dice," Obama's longstanding opposition to the Iraq war is "the biggest fairy tale," accusing Obama of putting some mythical "hit job" on him) almost single-handedly changed the tone of the post-Iowa campaign.
In South Carolina, Bill Clinton baselessly asserted that the Obama camp was inserting race into the campaign. Even though gullible journalists reported it, that charge failed the laugh test: How could raising the race issue, which would make him the Black Candidate and her the White Candidate, be anything but political suicide for Obama? Did I miss the Jesse Jackson Inauguration?
Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, an Obama supporter, minces no words in exposing Bill Clinton: "This is a cynical effort to minimize whatever victories Sen. Obama can win, especially in Southern states, by attributing those victories to Sen. Obama's race. ... This is the kind of divisive politics that American voters in 2008 neither want nor deserve."
Tom Daschle is right. Character is destiny.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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