Jim Sleeper: Obama in a Valley of Insinuations and Lies

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.]

I've spent a lot of time around serious scholarship and even more around real journalism-- the kind that, in print or online, requires"leg work," climbing tenement stairs the second time or making that last phone call or watching the expression on the campaign manager's face as you pop your question. Sometimes there's no substitute for going there to get the story, even if you think you've already figured it out or heard it all before.

Scholars uphold equivalent standards, but in today's New Republic, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz shows us only the arrogance and opportunism of a man who'd hoped to be the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of a Hillary Clinton Administration. Here, Wilentz treats one of his forays into journalism as slumming to help his side and mess up Barack Obama's effort by spinning charges that Wilentz doesn't trouble to substantiate with interviews or research of his own.

Wilentz plunges Obama into a hall of mirrors and insinuations by stringing others' reports to accuse him of accusing the Clintons of accusing him of calling them race-baiters. Got that? I get it, having written a lot about racial politics for The New Republic myself, not to mention for the New York Daily News,where I had many black readers.

I know how to expose charming black impressarios of racial street theater and common-room put-downs that freeze white liberals in their seats. Moreover, even in supporting Obama, I've expressed reservations here in posts like "Obama's Biggest Weakness" and "If I Vote For Obama, It'll Be Because..." Not only that, I hold nothing against Hillary Clinton, whom Wilentz thinks he is defending.

But I do recognize attitudinizing and pulling rank, academically or streetwise, when I see them, and I know that someone has gone off the deep end when he ends 5500 words of endless pirouetting with a pompous polemic like this::"[T]here is a long history of candidates who are wiling to inflame the most deadly passions in our national life in order to get elected. Sadly, that is what Barack Obama and his campaign gurus have been doing for months -- with the aid of their media helpers on the news and op-ed pages.... They promise to continue to until they win the nomination, by any means necessary."

That might be a shirring perroration to a series of devastating revelations, but most of what preceded it reads like this:

"His string of victories in caucuses and primaries... gave the Obama campaign undeniable momentum. But Obama and his strategists kept the race and race-baiter cards near the top of their campaign deck -- and the news media continued to report on the contest (or decline to report Obama's role as instigator) as if they had fallen in line."

The evidence, please? it never came.

Wilentz claims repeatedly that the Clintons are unfailingly gracious and astute but that Obama and his minions spin the Clintons' benign observations to stir black paranoia and stampede voters. But read Wilentz yourself and tell me if you find anything it it, anywhere, that's more than a parody of Talmudic exegesis gone wrong, a tangle of arguments by assertion. Does Wilentz even want to meet the kinds of people who might actually pick his stuff up and run with it?

He accuses an always-unspecified"media" and"press corps" of falling into line with Obama's"race-batier card" strategy. I take second place to no one in scourging"the media," but why are all of Wilentz's own sources recyled from the same media and press accounts of what candidates or their spokesmen have already said? He tells us repeatedly that"the Obama campaign" did this or that. But who, exactly? He never says.

Wilentz has operated this way before. He doesn't so much take positions as look over his shoulder in two or three directions before positioning himself as an arbiter of what is safe and appropriate just now for progressives to say.

Sometimes he lurches into histrionic poses, as when he instructed a congressional impeachment committee that"history will judge" them -- a pronouncement sufficiently snooty to remind even from those who agreed with him that history will judge Sean Wilentz, too, for shifting burdens of his own responsibility onto others.
Obama is shrewd, and no doubt he's not pure; but if Wilentz has something to show us, let him show it, not pass off his speculations as charges sanctioned by the judgment of history.

His attack on Obama is too clever by half to persuade anyone who isn't already cheering Wilentz on. The piece reads as if written in an exciting evening of phrase-turning in Princeton after a nice, long chat with someone from the Clinton campaign. The result is embarrassing to Wilentz, embarrassing to the New Republic, and offensive to those of us who've staked our credibility on wresting truth from storms of racial intimidation, insinuations,and lies.

Read entire article at TPM Cafe

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More Comments:

Clayborne Carson - 3/6/2008

I agree that all of those involved should be embarrassed about the article's unsubstantiated claims about the Obama campaign's playing of "the race card" (although the rest of the article is a polemic typical of political campaigns). Aeschylus reportedly said, "In war, truth is the first casualty," and that observation might extend to political combat. But it's disappointing when a distinguished historian descends to the point of publishing this kind of flawed argument that he would never accept from one of his students. I must add, however, that the assertion about W's possible self-serving motives might apply to much political commentary by scholars.

John D. Beatty - 3/5/2008

Private organizations (political parties) without any public accountability grub and screech and lie and steal and expect the rest of us not to notice that so far in this campaign NO ONE has said anything about governance. All they have done is spouted platitudes and slogans, staked out positions, mugged for the cameras and thought up the next sound bite while rushing off to the next fund-raiser.

And after the dust settles they'll just do it again, while running the country is left to the functionary robots and androids of the Civil Service, and we are told that these talking heads we are expected to like so much and support with our lives if necessary are "leaders."

If this is "leadership," it can be done by anyone parking cars in Brentwood or waiting tables in Beverly Hills.

Where's a revolution when you REALLY need one...

Arnold Shcherban - 3/3/2008

Whoa, scaring folks again? Really - <a horror story>? What is so horrific
about it?
Do you even understand the terms you use so freely?

Joe Cencittera - 3/2/2008

I came to the same conclusions that Wilentz did -- way before he articulated them.
It was easy to see that Obama was not only using the race card but was also using it to smear good people.

His campaign is not merely a fairy tale, it's a horror story.