The forceful 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy – and Kennedy's sudden break with the Clintons – was caused in part by a racist comment made by Bill Clinton to Kennedy over the telephone, according to a new campaign book.
The book, Game Change, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, asserts on page 218 that after Obama won the Iowa caucuses, Clinton called Kennedy to press for an endorsement from the influential Massachusetts liberal. But the call backfired, according to the authors, and left Kennedy deeply offended.
The day after Iowa, he phoned Kennedy and pressed for an endorsement, making the case for his wife. But Bill then went on, belittling Obama in a manner that deeply offended Kennedy. Recounting the conversation later to a friend, Teddy fumed that Clinton had said, A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.
Bill Clinton, once lauded by African-American admirers as the "first black president," got in trouble later in the campaign when he came across as dismissive of Obama's South Carolina victory by noting that Jesse Jackson had also carried the state when he ran in 1988. But this is the first time the "coffee" remark has been reported, and it is likely to reopen all old wounds – and cause some new ones.
For his part, Clinton reacted angrily in 2008 to anyone who dared question his racial sensitivity. If history is any guide, the former president will not let this latest assertion go unchallenged, either. In his telling, which should come any minute, Clinton will surely recount the conversation differently. Unless he simply flatly denies the second hand account, Clinton will likely say something along the lines that on the contrary, he was not belittling Obama but extolling how much racial progress had been made in this country -- and characterizing not his own view of Obama's audacious campaign, but how Republicans would talk about it.
According to the Halperin/Heilemann book, however, this remark was not an isolated instance. On Page 161 Hillary Clinton is depicted as being tickled when her New Hampshire campaign chairman Bill Shaheen mentions Obama's use of drugs as a young man. "Good for him," Hillary is quoted as saying. "Let's push it out."
Most of the Clinton staff, knowing this instinct was wrong, dissuaded Mrs. Clinton. But not all. On Page 163, senior adviser Mark Penn is heard boasting to his staff how many times he managed to work the word "cocaine" into an MSNBC segment where he went after Obama.
Campaign books often give the feel of rehashing everything you thought you knew. Not this one – especially the revelations about Elizabeth Edwards and her wayward husband John who, even after everything had come a cropper in his personal life, still thought he could parlay an Obama endorsement into an appointment as Attorney General. That didn't happen, but Hillary Clinton is now Secretary of State, and the publication of Game Change could make for an interesting moment or two at the next White House cabinet meeting.