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Clyburn Says Focus on Race Issues 'A Shame'

South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn (D) got back yesterday from an official trip to Asia, and he was not happy with what greeted him on his arrival -- a Democratic presidential contest that has become nastily focused on race issues.

Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina
Rep. Clyburn is a member of the House Democrats' leadership team. (File photo/Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

That's ironic, because Clyburn's comments before he left town may have helped to fuel the controversy. Clyburn is the House Majority Whip, but he summoned reporters to talk to him today wearing his other hat -- that of an elder statesman and power broker in South Carolina, particularly for the state's large African-American population.

In that state and on the national stage, the sparring between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has grown progressively more heated.

The controversy stemed from comments made before the New Hampshire primary, when Bill Clinton called Obama's claims about his record on Iraq "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," followed by Hillary Clinton's statement on the roles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson in passing civil rights legislation, which she capped by saying: "It took a president to get it done." Obama supporters and many blacks took umbrage with the comments, and the dispute escalated in a daily war of words between the two campaigns and their surrogates.

A visibly disappointed Clyburn said he was eager for the three Democratic frontrunners to lay out their visions on a host of public policy issues.

"That cannot be done if all the focus is on distinguishing factors like race and gender rather than on a shared and individual vision" for the future of the country, he said.

"For the last week no one has been talking about health care," he said. "There's been no talk about what we ought to be doing about Iraq. ... I think that is a shame."

Clyburn spoke to reporters at the National Democratic Club in a room lined with photos of Democratic presidents. So, appropriately enough, a large portrait of Lyndon Johnson looked down on Clyburn as he spoke.

As for his take on the relative importance of the roles played by Johnson and King in the civil rights movement, Clyburn said, "I don't think you can go back and make value judgments about who was more important. ... We all have roles to play. No one of us is more important than any other.

"All these things we sit here and argue about - they're specious arguments," he added.

While Clyburn is now making a plea for the campaigns to move beyond racial politics, the South Carolinian's initial criticism of Clinton's words and his comments to the New York Times helped touch off the current controversy.

"We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics," Clyburn told the Times in a Jan. 11 story."It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone's motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal."

But Clyburn downplayed the importance of his comments in driving the storyline. "I don't think what I said changed the direction of the campaign," he said.

Clyburn said he'd spoken to Obama and Clinton about the issue, and had spoken twice to Bill Clinton, who wanted to make sure the South Carolinian understood what he'd meant by saying Obama's message was a "fairy tale."

"I accept Bill Clinton's explanation," Clyburn said. "I accept Hillary Clinton's explanation. I accept Bob Johnson's explanation."

Clyburn said he felt compelled to try to steer the race back on course, and would probably head home early this week from the Capitol. Having pledged stay neutral in the contest, he has friends and, in some cases, family working for each campaign.

Clyburn added that he had made up his mind about who he personally would vote for, but that he could well change his mind again before Jan. 26. He wouldn't predict how his fellow South Carolinians would vote in the end.

The one thing Clyburn does know about the contest? "I don't think it should have anything to do with gender or race."

By Ben Pershing  |  January 15, 2008; 2:35 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign  
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Comments

It is the mainstream media that blew this all out of porportion. I am disgusted that they will use anything, even an idea to fuel a storyline to write headlines. I realize after watching how little play John Edwards after coming in second in Iowa that they also try to influence who americans should root for. Case in point, MSNBC and Fox not wanting Kuchinich or Ron Paul in the debates. As if the people who support them in the nation have no value. Here is my suggestion: Watch CSpan, and listen to the candidates. consider the rest entertainment as news no longer occupies the television channels as it used to. And ignore supid articles like this one.

Posted by: Narnia | January 15, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse

The MSM and the Obama campaign blew it out of proportion. Hillary said actions matter more than words, and Barack said MLK's words led to the Civil Rights laws in the 60's. Hillary said it also took LBJ (a president) to enact the laws. All of these are legitimate points, but the MSM and the Obama campaigns spun it that HRC was somehow denigrating MLK.
The fair-minded people of NH saw through the BS -- I sure hope the good people of SC can too ... JV.

Posted by: JV | January 15, 2008 3:59 PM | Report abuse

H. Clinton is right about it took a president to enact the civil rights law. However, LBJ's hand was forced...he was pressured into signing the civil rights bill. I felt as though H. Clinton down played MLK's work in getting the Civil Rights Bill passed. Look, the Clinton's are trying to get Obama to talk about race. In my opinion race or gender doesn't matter as long as we have two individuals that are competent with fresh ideas to take this country forward. I believe that the Clinton's are damaging their campaign in the south by race bating

Posted by: Colin | January 15, 2008 10:58 PM | Report abuse

I was teaching in the Deep South at the time of MLK's death. I was motivated to go there by the words of JFK as well as MLK. After their deaths, a sense of collective shame allowed our lawmakers a short window in which truly historic legislation could be enacted. The men who found themselves in this historic time and who were able to engage the better angels of the American people all deserve credit. I agree with Barack Obama words are important. They can motivate people to action. They are not empty sound bites. One of the problems in American society today is we have a President who does not speak well and not speak honestly.

Posted by: Elinor Miller | January 16, 2008 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Ben Pershing is wrong to allege that Congressman Cyburn fueled the racial debate between Hillary Clinton and Obama. Congressman Cyburn did not start a racial debate. Congressman Cyburn was correcting an immense historical error in Hillary's remark that it was President Lyndon Johnson who gave America The Civil Rihts Act of 1964.

It took protraced marches,demonstrations, sacrifices by massess of civil rights activists, the vision of President JFK, the assassination of President JFK and a bipartisan majority in Congress to put on President Lyndon Johnson's table a civl righs law to sign: The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Of course, President Lyndon Johnson played another part; he chose to finsih the agenda that he had inherited from his predicessor.

Hillary Clinton denigrated the role played by The Civil Rights Movement. She ignored the leadership of President JFK in civil righs issues; she ignored the support of Republican Congress persons for civl rights. Last, but not least, she denigrated the effective civil rights leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, who gave his life for freedom. Therefore, Senator Clinton distorted history by asserting that President Lyndon Johnson acted alone to pass the Civil Righs Acts of 1964.

The Obama campaign should not have been blamed for reacting to an historic error.

If one extends Hillary's remark to the Independence War and The Women's Movement, one would reach the following absurb conclusions: One, It was not the soldiers in The Revolutionary War who won Independence from England, it was Geroge Washington. Two, it was not the Modern Women's Movemet that gave women equal eduacational and emplyment opportunites, it was Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Nixon.

I do not want a Presidential candidate who scores cheap points by distoritng the history of American people, many of whom died for the freedom that we all enjoy in this great country, today.

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