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.
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.
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."
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