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Edwards, Obama Join Fray Over Clinton MLK Comments

By Anne E. Kornblut
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, embroiled in an intense dispute over comments about civil rights history, on Sunday accused the Obama campaign of "deliberately distorting" her words to inflame the racially-charged debate. In his toughest response yet, Sen. Barack Obama quickly fired back that Clinton had made an "unfortunate remark" when she said that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had depended on Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson to get civil rights legislation passed.

And, for the first time, former senator John Edwards weighed in on a war of words that is rapidly consuming the dialogue between the top three Democratic presidential candidates in the most diverse campaign in history. All three are dueling for votes in South Carolina, where the Democratic primary is set to take place on Jan. 26 -- and where the party's electorate is about half African American.

In an at-times contentious appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," Clinton defended her husband's observation last week that the central tenet of Obama's campaign is a "fairy tale," saying it referred only to Obama's Iraq war position and not his standing as a candidate.

But the bigger point of contention has become her own statement, in a campaign appearance before the New Hampshire primary, about King. Clinton on Sunday said she had been merely responding to Obama's comparison of his own works to Dr. King's.

"Dr. King had been on the front lines. He had been leading a movement," Clinton said on Sunday. "But Dr. King understood, which is why he made it very clear, that there has to be a coming to terms of our country politically in order to make the changes that would last for generations beyond the iconic, extraordinary speeches that he gave. That's why he campaigned for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That's why he was there when those great pieces of legislation were passed. Does he deserve the lion's share of the credit for moving our country and moving our political process? Yes, he does. But he also had partners who were in the political system."

Clinton told "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert that her remarks had been taken out of context. "And I think it is such an unfair and unwarranted attempt to, you know, misinterpret and mischaracterize what I've said. Look at what I've done my entire life. I have been working on behalf of civil rights, women's rights, human rights for years and I know how challenging it is to change our political system and I have the highest regard for those who have put themselves on the line," Clinton said.

Obama has largely tried to stay out of the direct line of fire in the debate, recognizing how inflammatory it has grown. But as it extended into a second week, he addressed Clinton's remarks. "This is fascinating to me," Obama said in a conference call with reporters as he announced the endorsement of Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Asked whether he took offense at Clinton's remarks, Obama made his most forceful comments on the subject to date -- pointing out that he has not commented on her earlier speech and that it was Clinton herself who offended some African Americans with her own description of civil rights history.

"I mean, I think what we saw this morning is why the American people are tired of Washington politicians and the games that they play," Obama said. "But Sen. Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark, about King and Lyndon Johnson. I didn't make the statement. I haven't remarked on it. And she, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King's role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act. She is free to explain that. But the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous."

For the first time on Sunday, the debate also expanded to include Edwards, who turned the "fairy tale" accusation back around against the Clintons.

"As someone who grew up in the segregated South, I feel an enormous amount of pride when I see the success that Sen. Barack Obama is having in this campaign," Edwards said during an appearance at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Sumter, S.C.

Edwards continued: "I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change came not through the Rev. Martin Luther King, but through a Washington politician. I fundamentally disagree with that. Those who believe that real change starts with Washington politicians have been in Washington too long -- and are living in a fairy tale."

Several leading African-American members of Congress, most notably Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, expressed strong concern over the comments made by Clinton and her husband, prompting both to make a round of phone calls and appearances to try to quell dissent. The former president -- sometimes known as the country's "first black president" -- said on Rev. Al Sharpton's radio show on Friday that he had not meant to offend Obama but had merely been criticizing his record on the Iraq war.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 13, 2008; 2:31 PM ET
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