Published Saturday, Jan. 9, 2010 | 1:21 p.m.
Updated Saturday, Jan. 9, 2010 | 2:12 p.m.
The sensational news today about the new book, “Game Change,” is about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s comments that Barack Obama could be president because he is a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” I don’t even want to engage in the discussion of whether Reid is a racist – there is no evidence from his career that he is (quite the contrary, although Republicans are raising the Trent Lott analogy) or whether he has a propensity to say dumb things (they could fill the web).
This from White House:
"Harry Reid called me today and apologized for an unfortunate comment reported today. I accepted Harry's apology without question because I've known him for years, I've seen the passionate leadership he's shown on issues of social justice and I know what's in his heart. As far as I am concerned, the book is closed."
But the larger story from the book by national journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann – and I have obtained it today – is that Reid and other senators were pushing Obama to run very early in the cycle (mid-2006) partly out of fears about a Hillary Clinton candidacy (and Bill Clinton’s vulnerabilities) and partly because they thought Obama, as opposed to any other possible Democratic nominee, could redraw the electoral map and not cost Democrats Capitol Hill seats.
Indeed, Reid told Obama, according to the book, “You’re not going anyplace here.” And the overall narrative of just how early Reid and others (even New York’s Chuck Schumer) encouraged Obama to run – and later urged the newly elected president to take Hillary off their hands after they lost – is laid out in “Game Change.”
The book directly contradicts Reid’s account from his own biography, “The Good Fight,” which implies he talked to Obama about running for president in early 2007 and not, as “Game Change” lays out, mid-2006. (I have written many times about Reid acting as Meddler-in-Chief of the state’s political world; no reason to believe as U.S. Senate majority leader that he doesn’t try to do the same in national world.)
The Reid explanation: "Sen. Reid had multiple conversations with Obama about running and doesn’t recall the exact date of when the first one occurred, but there’s no disputing the fact that he was one of the very first people to encourage Obama to run for president."
Below are some excerpts, first from Reid’s afterword in “The Good Fight” on his version of the Obama meeting. And then the excerpts from “Game Change” with details of a meeting the authors say took place in July 2006 – as well as the post-election discussions about Hillary.
Here’s what “The Good Fight” says after Reid decided to give Obama the lead on ethics reform after the 2006 elections.
Early the following year, as Senator Obama and I met in my office on another matter, a conversation developed as to whether he could be president. I was resolved to stay neutral in the coming campaign, but I told him in my view the stars could align for him. “If you want to be president, you can be president now,” I said.
“I don’t know, Harry,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
But in Game Change,” here’s what Halperin and Heilemann write:
OBAMA MAY HAVE BEEN a buckraking messiah, but he was all too aware that he was still just a freshman and therefore at the beck and call of his party’s leadership. So when he was summoned one day in July (2006) to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office without the slightest explanation why, he promptly hoofed it over there, remarking to (Robert) Gibbs on his way out the door, “I wonder what we screwed up.”
Obama’s relationship with the leader was cordial enough, but it was hardly warm or close. Now he found himself sitting in the chair across from Reid in his quarters in the Capitol. From the wall above Reid’s desk, the impassive visage of Samuel Clemens, rendered in a giant oil painting, mutely observed the proceedings.
At sixty-six, Reid was a little more than twenty years older than Obama, but in terms of style and demeanor, the generation gap between them seemed much wider. Awkward and halting, vaguely archaic, Reid didn’t like wasting words or time. On his mind today was Obama’s future in the Senate—and he got right to the point.
“You’re not going to go anyplace here,” Reid declared soon after Obama took his seat. “I know that you don’t like it, doing what you’re doing.”
In observing Obama for the past year and a half, Reid had sensed his frustration and impatience, had heard rumblings that Obama was already angling to head back home and take a shot at the Illinois governorship. Reid had no idea if it was true, but he knew this much: Obama simply wasn’t cut out to be a Senate lifer.
As Obama listened to the senior senator from Nevada, he wasn’t sure where the old man was going. But then Reid’s disquisition took an unexpected turn, surprising Obama in both its bluntness and adamancy.
Twenty minutes later, the meeting was over, and Obama headed back to his warren in the Hart building. He breezed through the lobby, down the hall, and into Gibbs’s office, closing the door behind him.
“So,” asked Gibbs from behind his desk, “what did we (expletive deleted) up?”
“Nothing,” Obama replied. “Harry wants me to run for president.”
“That whole meeting was about you running for president?”
“Yeah,” Obama said, then grinned. “He really wants me to run for president.”
As for the fears about Hillary, here’s what the book says about Reid’s role:
Reid was well aware that such thoughts were rippling through the Democratic caucus. In truth, he shared them. After the aching disappointments of 2000 and 2004, and after the depredations Democrats believed Bush had inflicted on the country, the sense of urgency about taking back the White House was bordering on manic. The obvious answer was to find a plausible challenger to Clinton—someone who wouldn’t weigh down the rest of the party’s candidates, even if he were defeated in the general election.
The problem was that none of the Democrats contemplating a bid fit the bill. Edwards was regarded as a shallow, callow pretender by virtually every one of his former colleagues. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Evan Bayh were fine senators, but all would be crushed by Clinton. Ditto Bill Richardson, Mark Warner, and Tom Vilsack. John Kerry was saddled with more baggage than a curbside porter at Dulles air- port. only Al Gore, rejuvenated by his fiery opposition to Bush on the war and his celebrated climate change crusade, seemed to have what it took to make a credible run at Clinton. But Gore evinced almost zero interest in climbing back into the ring.
The pickings, in other words, were mighty slim—except for Obama.
Years later, Reid would claim that he was steadfastly neutral in the 2008 race; that he never chose sides between Barack and Hillary; that all he did was tell Obama that “he could be president,” that “the stars could align for him.” But at the time, in truth, his encouragement of Obama was unequivocal. He was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” as he later put it privately.
Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination. He argued that Obama’s lack of experience might not be crippling; it might actually be an asset, allowing him to cast himself as a figure uncorrupted and uncoopted by evil Washington, without the burdens of countless Senate votes and floor speeches. And, unlike Clinton, Obama had come out forcefully and early against Bush’s Iraq incursion; in 2002, while he was still a state senator, he’d given a heralded speech in which he said, “I don’t oppose all wars. . . . What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” Reid wasn’t sure Obama could defeat Clinton. Probably he couldn’t. But he was the only person in the party who stood a fighting chance—the best available alternative.
Obama had heard these arguments before from other senators. His friend and Illinois counterpart, Dick Durbin, was urging him to run, but that was to be expected. More intriguing were the entreaties he was receiving from New York’s Chuck Schumer. Schumer’s relation- ship with Hillary had always been fraught with rivalry and tinged with jealousy; though she was technically the junior member of the New York team in the Senate, she had eclipsed him in terms of celebrity and influence from the moment she arrived on the Hill. By 2006, they had found their way to a mostly peaceful coexistence. Yet because of the circles in which he traveled, Schumer was more familiar than most with the tittle-tattle about her husband’s alleged infidelities. He heard people debating what Hillary should do to preserve her political vi- ability when the scandal inevitably broke: Divorce Bill or ride it out (again)?
Schumer was also the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and, in that role, had seen Obama’s efforts up close on behalf of the party’s candidates. He was blown away by Obama’s fund- raising prowess and the enthusiasm he generated in states traditionally inhospitable to Democrats. The political handicapper in Schumer was fascinated by Obama’s potential to redraw the electoral map, a capacity Clinton surely lacked. In conversations with other senators and strategists in 2006, Schumer would make these points over and over. He made them to Obama as well, and repeatedly; in one instance Schumer even double-teamed him with Reid. Although Schumer was careful to signal that home-state decorum would prohibit him from opposing Clinton publicly—“You understand my position,” he would say—he left no doubt as to where his head and heart were on the question.
These were not the only senatorial voices importuning Obama. Daschle, too, was on the case, and so was a coterie of senators close to him, including Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both of North Dakota. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Barbara Boxer of California, and even Ted Kennedy—all were nudging Obama to take the plunge. Their conversations with Barack were surreptitious, a conspiracy of whispers. They told him that 2008 was going to be a change election and that he uniquely could embody transformation. They told him he might never get a better chance. They told him this could be his time.
But they also added the same caveats as Schumer. Keen as they were for Obama to run, they would never be able to bless him with an early endorsement. Coming out against Hillary would pose grave risks. The Clintons had long memories and a vindictive streak ten miles wide. If Hillary prevailed, they feared—no, they were certain—there would be retribution down the line. But they would root for Obama secretly, doing whatever they could to help without affronting the aborning Democratic dynasty.
On the fears of Hillary running, from “Game Change” is this passage:
There were other reasons for Clinton to say yes. The Senate wasn’t proving as welcoming as she’d hoped, not by a long shot. She had come back thinking that her campaign had enhanced her status, that she could snag for herself some kind of plum position—a subcommittee chairmanship, a specially created health care panel, something. But Kennedy shot her down on health care, and Reid sidestepped her other requests. (Behind the scenes, he and Schumer were beseeching the Obamans to take Hillary off their hands.) The conspiratorial whisperers in the Senate were no longer whispering. They were telling her not to get ahead of herself, to take a seat, take a number.
Here's the Reid response:
"That characterization is inaccurate. Sen. Reid has always believed that Hillary Clinton was an impressive, talented and valuable leader in the Senate and he has always enjoyed a strong working relationship with her—then and now."
What else can he say?
UPDATE: Wagon-circling continues with Al Sharpton statement:
"I have learned of certain unfortunate comments made by Senator Reid regarding President Barack Obama and have spoken with Senator Reid about those comments. While there is no question that Senator Reid did not select the best word choice in this instance, these comments should not distract America from its continued focus on securing health care or creating jobs for its people. Nor should they detract from the unquestionable leadership role Senator Reid has
played on these issues or in the area of civil rights. Senator Reid's door has always been open on hearing from the civil rights community on these issues and I look forward to continue to work with Senator Reid wherever possible to improve the lives of Americans everywhere."