Tuesday, May 27, 2008

BOB HERBERT: Roads, High and Low


On Friday morning, Joe Biden gave us an example of a leading national politician exhibiting decency and class. Later in the day, Hillary Clinton gave us an example of something else.

Senator Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. He spoke insightfully about the complexity of dealing with Iran, moving the discussion beyond the tedious and simplistic argument over whether to meet with certain foreign leaders.

He defended Barack Obama against the searing attacks by the Bush administration, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, and said:

“I refuse to sit back like we did in 2000 and 2004. This administration is the worst administration in American foreign policy in modern history — maybe ever. The idea that they are competent to continue to conduct our foreign policy, to make us more secure and make Israel secure, is preposterous. ... Every single thing they’ve touched has been a near-disaster.”

Mr. Biden was then asked about the dispute that Senator Obama and Senator McCain have been having over Senator Jim Webb’s proposal to increase college tuition benefits for men and women who have served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001. Senator Obama supports the bill. Senator McCain does not and has introduced a less-generous measure of his own.

When Senator Obama criticized Senator McCain’s position on this issue, Mr. McCain responded angrily and gratuitously mentioned that Mr. Obama had not served in the military. (This is especially weird when you consider that Senator McCain is a fierce supporter of the war in Iraq, which was fanatically promoted by an entire barnyard of chicken hawks.)

Said Senator McCain: “I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lecture on my regard for those who did.”

Dick Cheney never served in uniform. George W. Bush was assigned a uniform, but he spent a lot of time hiding from active duty. Bill Clinton never served in uniform. Hillary Clinton never served in uniform.

Senator Biden became emotional as he began his response to the question. “This is tough for me,” he said, “because John’s been my friend for 35 years, and I’m disappointed. Because, as you all know, there is a difference between an ad hominem argument and a logical response.”

Senator McCain had taken the ad hominem route, said Senator Biden, and he was saddened by it. That kind of behavior, he said, should be “beneath us.”

But Senator Biden went further. He spoke about the overall tone of the presidential campaign and expressed his dismay over the ugly currents being felt. “This whole campaign,” he said, “seems to be drifting toward, you know, a place that I’m not comfortable with in terms of how they’re going to respond to Barack.”

Later that day, Senator Clinton made her now infamous reference to Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. If you give her every benefit of the doubt, you still have a candidate making a tasteless and purely self-serving comment that she should have understood would send a shiver of dread through millions.

From the time that Barack Obama announced that he would run for president, the thought that he might be assassinated because of his race has been widespread.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 6 in 10 Americans said that they were worried that someone would try to harm Senator Obama if he became the Democratic nominee. More than 8 in 10 African-Americans expressed fear for his safety.

I’ve spoken with a number of black voters who wondered whether they might not be doing Mr. Obama harm by casting a ballot for him. Said one woman: “I fear for him, the closer he gets to his goal.”

Senator Clinton, her husband Bill and many of their supporters still seem to be tone deaf with regard to this controversy. One of the main talking points out of the Clinton camp is that the Obama people are responsible for the flare-up.

The Clinton campaign has made it clear that Senator Clinton remains in the race because anything can happen. That generally has been taken to mean that a scandal could erupt that would cause the Obama campaign to implode. Some Reverend Wright on steroids might burst into public view. Keep in mind what happened to Eliot Spitzer.

But it’s also understood that an unforeseen catastrophe could involve harm to Senator Obama. Comments that bring that fear to the forefront are incredibly cold-blooded and hurtful, more brutal even than Senator Clinton’s comment about “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”

Mr. Biden understands that the tone of a campaign is important, that it can make a difference. It’s a lesson Mrs. Clinton seems not to have learned.

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