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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 01/23/2008

Clinton vs Obama on CNN

By Michael Dobbs

Making a point in the CNN debate.

"While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at WalMart."
--Barack Obama, Democratic debate on CNN, Myrtle Beach, S.C., January 22, 2008.
"I was fighting against [Republican] ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago."
--Hillary Clinton, Myrtle Beach debate.

This mean-spirited exchange between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Monday night's CNN debate provides two excellent examples of the rhetorical device of false comparison. Compare my record on (insert something positive you have done) with (insert something negative about your opponent.) Even if the underlying facts are more or less accurate, it is still a dishonest form of argument because it contrasts your best points with your opponent's worst ones.

The Facts

Hillary Clinton was a member of the WalMart Board of Directors from 1986 to 1992, while her husband was governor of Arkansas and she was a member of the Rose Law firm. She subsequently distanced herself from the Arkansas-based company, and has criticized its labor practices. She returned a $5000 campaign donation from Wal-Mart in 2005.

During the same period, Barack Obama worked as a community organizer in Chicago, attended Harvard Law School, and moved back to Chicago. In 1993, he got a job as an associate attorney with a small Chicago law firm, Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland. It was during this period that he first became involved with a real estate developer named Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who has subsequently been indicted with fraud, extortion, and money laundering and will go on trial on February 25. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama received more than $168,000 in campaign contributions from Rezko and his associates since 1995.

Obama has denied doing any legal work directly for Rezko or his companies. During Monday night's debate, he said that he had done "about five hours worth of work" on a joint real estate development project involving Rezko and a Chicago church group. Obama's former supervisor at the law firm, William Miceli, said that the firm represented a non-profit group called the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation which redeveloped a run-down property on Chicago's South Side jointly with Rezko. He described Clinton's assertion that Obama represented Rezko in a slum landlord business as "categorically untrue."

"He was a very junior lawyer at the time, who was given responsibility for basic due diligence, document review," said Miceli, adding that Obama did what he was told to do. According to Miceli, this was the only instance in which Obama worked on a Rezko-related project during his time with the law firm.

The Pinocchio Test

The story of Obama's relations with Rezko remains murky. Obama has been embarrassed by revelations that he bought a house alongside a lot purchased by Rezko, paying $300,000 less than the asking price. But an intensive investigation by Chicago newspapers has failed so far to turn up evidence that he represented Rezko in a "slum landlord business" in the derogatory manner described by Clinton. What has been established is that he did some due diligence legal work for a joint venture between Rezko and a Chicago non-profit. Two Pinocchios for Clinton.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | January 23, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  2 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch  
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