Sean Wilentz: Response to Orlando Patterson's essays on the Clinton campaign's use of race

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton.]

Orlando Patterson's reply is as unpersuasive as his original op-ed essay. His op-ed--a fanciful interpretation of Hillary Clinton's 3 A.M. campaign ad as racist--provides no facts to back up its assertions, thereby making refutation literally impossible. Now, in his reply, Patterson offers more groundless speculation. He also fails to concede that his original essay contained a gross falsehood that is now a matter of record--a falsehood that, once revealed, demolishes his basic argument. And his account of my writing about Obama's charges of racism creates a straw man that has absolutely nothing to do with what I have actually written.

Patterson evades the real subject of Clinton's original ad, national security, in order to accuse the Clinton campaign of being racist. He seems to want to change the obvious subject. Although the tone of his response sounds more reasonable than his inflammatory op-ed--where he likens Hillary Clinton and her campaign to the white supremacist film director D.W. Griffith and his heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation--his reply only compounds his misbegotten attack.

Patterson takes as gospel the Obama campaign's allegations about Bill Clinton's supposed race-baiting during the South Carolina primary, without engaging any of the facts that refute this claim. Patterson does not debate or consider the matter; he simply asserts his version of the truth. He also explains away Obama's flip-flopping about the charge that Clinton and her campaign leaked an allegedly racially charged photograph of Obama. According to Patterson, Obama merely" changed his statement when he learned the sordid truth about what the Clinton campaign was up to." Yet Patterson does not state what the"sordid truth" is regarding the photo and its dissemination, and he does not provide any evidence that the Clinton campaign did anything"sordid." Nor does he back up his claim that Obama's reversal of position stemmed from his learning something. He just recycles dubious charges and invents the rest. (Patterson also ought to know that the term"flip-flop" long antedates the 2004 campaign, and is used by Republicans and Democrats alike--including, judging from the candidate's official website, followers of Senator Obama.)

Patterson goes on to state flatly, without a shred of evidence, that most older, less educated white Democratic voters of Texas are racists. Is this not racial politics of the crudest kind? Why would he assume that Texas Democrats who have decided to ally themselves in a party with Latinos and blacks are racists? Why doesn't Patterson level the charge of racism against Texas Latinos, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton and not for Obama? Or Catholics generally, who overall vote two to one for Clinton? Why not Jews, who also vote nearly two to one for Clinton? Even stranger: Patterson offers this racialist speculation as hard evidence that Clinton's ad was racist.

In his op-ed and his reply, Patterson's entire argument rests on his assertion that the Clinton ad depicted only white children as the endangered ones."When will he"--meaning me--"join the age of visual media?" writes Patterson. Yet one of the children in the ad is African-American, as the Clinton campaign has pointed out. That child is there in the visual media for any viewer to see. Why can't Patterson admit his error?

Read entire article at New Republic

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Heinrich Schitten - 3/18/2008

Wilentz needs to show the fundamental intellectual honesty expected of our profession and disclose his longtime personal support of the Clintons when he writes an attack on Obama.