Opinion: In his own words: Bill Clinton on Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson


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The bitterness of ex-president Bill Clinton’s scorched earth march to the sea across South Carolina lingers not just in the chilly relations between his wife, Hillary, and Sen. Barack Obama, and apparently in the votes of thousands of South Carolinians. There was considerable criticism of Bill Clinton for injecting race into the race, which Obama easily won 2 to 1.

But now some of Clinton’s supporters are suggesting he was not seeking to marginalize Obama as an old-fashioned hopeless black candidate, but that it was actually reporters who injected race and the Rev. Jesse Jackson into Clinton’s post-election analysis.

Thanks to our colleague Jake Tapper over at ABC News, we have the entire transcript of that controversial exchange between Clinton and reporters. As we occasionally choose to do here at the Ticket, we’ve laid out a longer conversation so readers can soak up the context and full impact of the politically spoken words. Now, you can make your own judgment as to who brought the Rev. Jackson into the conversation:


Bill Clinton: Wow. Hi, Everybody.

Reporter: How’s it going for you this morning, Mr. President?

BC: Oh, good. You know, I like election days and I think it’s interesting they vote on Saturday here. It makes it easier for working people to go. You know, there’s really not much you can do to change a lot of votes, but by stirring around, you may induce people who are for you to go ahead and vote when they might not have.

Reporter: You proud of what you’ve done here in South Carolina?

BC: Oh yeah, we’ve done our best, and we’ve had, I particularly have enjoyed, you know, my role here has been almost exclusively to go around and do town meetings and answer questions, that’s most of what I’ve done, and I’ve really enjoyed that. I think it’s been immensely impressive to me to see in the audiences whether they were predominantly African American, predominantly....

white, or totally integrated, there has not been a great deal of difference in the questions people ask.

If the voters really are intensely interested in what we can do to change the economic direction of the country, what we can do about healthcare, what we can do to restore our country’s standing in the world.

And there doesn’t seem to be even a great deal of difference in the questions asked, depending on who they’re supporting, so I’ve -– I like that, because, you know, I just answer questions. They know I know some things about this stuff, I make the case for Hillary as best I can, but basically I just tell them why I’m for Hillary, and then I answer their questions.

Reporter: That said, some of the folks in your own party have accused you of race-baiting here.

BC: Yeah, well I would refer them to what John Lewis and Andrew Young –- two people left who were with Martin Luther King every step of the way -– said. I don’t have to defend myself on civil rights, and John Lewis and Andrew Young said what needed to be said about that. There’s nothing left for me to say.

Reporter: Mr. President, Senator Kerry that -– had some critical comments too about some of the things that have gone on this week. He said being a former president doesn’t give you a license to abuse the truth. Just wanted your reaction to that.

BC: Yes, but did you notice he didn’t specify anything? You notice that? They never do. They hurl these charges, but nothing is specified. I’m not taking the bait today. I did what I could to help Senator Kerry every time he needed me, and every time he asked me, and I have no -- he can support whomever he wants, for whatever reason he wants, but there’s nothing for me to respond to because I don’t believe in labeling, I think he should have specifics, so today we just want everybody to vote.

David Wright: What does it say about Barack Obama that it takes two of you to beat him?

BC: [Laughs] That’s just bait, too. Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in ‘84 and ‘88. And he ran a good campaign, and Senator Obama’s run a good campaign here. He’s run a good campaign everywhere, he’s got a, he is a good candidate, with a good organization.

DW: He says he is sometimes not sure who his opponent is, you or his wife.

BC: That is bait, too.

DW: Your wife, rather, sorry.

BC: I am working for my wife because I believe she’d be the best president. If weren’t married, I’d be working for her if she asked me to. And his wife’s done a good job for him, and --

DW: She’s not an ex-president of the United States, though.

BC: I know but that doesn’t mean that –- I’m still a citizen now, when, you know, I can’t wait to get back to my foundation work. I’m not a direct, directly involved in politics but I am concerned about my country and I think she’d be the best president.

And I would be working for her if we had never been married. She’s the best qualified person I’ve had a chance to support for president in my lifetime. For, because of the variety of experiences she’s had but because of the things she has done in every stage of her life to change other people’s lives for the better, and that’s what I say, my message has been 99.9% positive for 100% of this campaign.

Not only about her, but about the other candidates. And I think that when I think she’s being misrepresented, I have a right to try to, with factual accuracy, set the record straight, which is what I have tried to do.

Andy Fies: Do you feel that you’re more actively involved than you ever thought you’d be at this point?

BC: Not exactly, I just –

AF: Or out on the trail more?

BC: No, I just, you know -- before what I was doing was trying to help her raise funds and not make any public impression, because I wanted America to have time to get to know her, the way New Yorkers have, the way people in Arkansas do. You know, she’s doing terrifically well in the polls down there because they know her. She did well in the Republican as well as Democratic areas of New York because they know her. She’s done immensely well in the U.S. Senate, passing bills with Republicans with stunning levels of success because they know her.

So -- but now, you know, what happened is there’s so many elections happening so fast that you need all your family members, I mean I think Chelsea’s working in a way I’m not sure she thought she would be, we just all wanted to be hands on deck and I think it’s been the right thing, it’s kind of a family affair. My 88-year-old mother-in-law is working harder than she thought she would, but she likes it.

Oh yeah, I like this, I like the one thing I’ve been criticized for that I think is accurate -- I have not said anything that is factually inaccurate and that’s why when people say I have, they never specify because they know I’ll win the fight. But the -- but I do think that the difference between running now and when I ran for myself, shoot, when I ran in ‘92, I could have cared less what anybody said about me.

Really, I didn’t. I mean, you just go right on, you’ve got your positive message, you stay on message, if somebody has an argument, you have an argument. When it’s your spouse, I think it’s harder to take when you hear people say things and call them names for months. That’s harder, you know, and I think I was a little hot in New Hampshire, and I think I got criticized for that, and one person said to me, she said, I talked to one person who had been critical, who said, look you told the truth, everything you said was true, but people don’t want to see you mad about it. Just relax, chill out. And I think that’s, that was right, and I think that’s advice that I should have taken and I have tried to take.

David Wright: That’s Congressman Clyburn said too, chill out.

BC: Yeah, but he, Congressman Clyburn is a good man and he, he didn’t dispute the accuracy of what I said. He just said that, that, people, we don’t want to get mad, and I agree with that, I don’t -– I agree with that. We have got to try and hold everything together here because we’ve got a big campaign to win in the fall, whatever happens in this primary, and our side wants to change the economic and foreign policy direction of this country. And in order to do it, we’ve after –- we’ll have a vigorous primary fight then we’ve got to put our party back together. And I am looking forward to that. I --

DW: But is that going to be tougher to do after the ugliness of South Carolina?

BC: No, man you’ve never been in very many campaigns if you think this was ugly, this was a cakewalk. This is not any big deal. This is a, you know I -- ever since, when I first started running for president, I was used to people just mauling me. You know, in some ways it hasn’t been as ugly as Iowa was, you know it just didn’t get, the ugliness just was not publicized. The differences were not publicized.


Well, I mean Hillary was called untruthful, manipulative, changing her position on everything, you know, a lot of things. You’ve just got to blow through this, that just all happens, it’s just part of politics, and you just shouldn’t take the bait, you should be positive and go on and make our cases. But when it’s over, if you listen to -- the most important thing to happen in that debate, that achieved no notice, was when they all sat down and cooled down, in the second part of the debate here in South Carolina, and all of them observed that they were all discussing their different approaches to issues that weren’t even being discussed in the Republican primary.

That’s the most important thing, because keep in mind, you have -- I am not being critical. But you have to cover this race as a horse race between candidates, but the really, the thing that matters to the people who are going there and voting is how their lives are going to change. So in the end, the election is really about the American people and how their lives will change.

So for me as a citizen, the most important thing that happened in that last debate was to see Senator Obama and Senator Edwards and Hillary agree that they were talking about things and caring about things that were not even being discussed in the other primary and that keeps saying to America we need to make a change and that means that whoever we nominate in this process can still be elected in the fall, that’s what we’ve got to do.

We’ve all got to hold it -- They should argue, it’s healthy, heck, let them argue about who’s got the best healthcare plan, who’s got the best stimulus plan, let them do that. But the main thing is to do it in a way that makes it clear to the American people that our party represents the fundamental departure in American needs, and that’s what I think’s going to happen.

I basically feel good about it. But, you know, by the standards of southern politics and what I went through in the ‘80s at home, and even the ‘92 campaign, this has been a walk in the park, there’s not much negative. We just need to get this show on the road and get back to making our positive cases. All of us.

Staff: Thanks, guys.

Reporter: [unintelligible]

BC: Yeah I think they both did a good job, if you look at it, the campaign, the debate ended on a positive note and nearly as I can tell from just the press coverage I read, you know, I mean he put a few licks on her, and other people said what they said, but both of these, these campaigns are making a very -- three different distinct, positive appeals to their voters. [Crosstalk] And that’s what I think, and I think you’re going to it because I think we’ll have a good turnout today, but I -- you shouldn’t, you guys, you know, that stuff happens, but it’s very bad to have 100% of the interpretation of the campaign come out of 2% or 3% at most of what is said.

If you look at the general thing, the Democrats offer a rather dramatic change in economic and foreign policy from the Republicans. And that’s what the American people are looking for. And I say -- OK, so you’re going to change, so how will the healthcare deal work, how will the economic deal work? I’ve been going -- all I do is go to these meetings and let people ask questions, so I know how they look at it. And that’s good for us. And we’ll keep it together, it’ll be fine.

BC: Thank you.

The comments section is now open.

--Andrew Malcolm