In noting that the relationship between former President Bill Clinton and current President Barack Obama had at one time been characterized as containing elements of racism, journalist Ryan Lizza claims that during the height of tensions between Clinton and Obama, Clinton told Sen. Edward Kennedy that "a few years ago, this guy (Obama) would have been carrying our bags."
Lizza's source is the late Tim Russert who said he heard it from Kennedy. The comment apparently came in a conversation before the South Carolina primary in 2008 as Clinton was asking Kennedy to endorse his wife, Hillary Clinton, who was running against Obama at the time. Kennedy eventually endorsed Obama.
The quote is perhaps not new. In John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's 2010 book, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, Clinton reportedly said that Obama would have been getting their coffee.
Writing for Salon, Joan Walsh argues it's a stretch to suggest the comment is racist.
"So was it carrying bags or serving coffee? Clearly Kennedy took something away from his conversation with Clinton that he found condescending to Obama, but these attempts to make Clinton's pique at the upstart Illinois senator seem vaguely racial -- 'Game Change' pushed that idea harder than Lizza does -- is getting tiresome," Walsh wrote.
The editors of The New York Times also said at the time that Clinton was "perilously close to injecting racial tension" into the Democratic primary when, during the New Hampshire contest, he called Obama's record on Iraq "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen!"
The Obama campaign suggested the comment smacked of racism (as in a black man becoming president is a fairy tale). James Clyburn, the black congressman from South Carolina, said that Clinton's remarks "could very well be insulting to some of us."
According to Heilemann and Halperin, Clinton was outraged at the Times editorial.
"I can't believe these a**holes are sitting there writing this," Heilemann and Halperin report Clinton telling a friend at the time. "After everything I did for civil rights in Arkansas! After everything I did in the White House! They know damn well I don't have a racist bone in my body!"
It was after Obama won the South Carolina primary that Clinton made another public remark that was also characterized by some as tinged with racism.
In explaining his wife's South Carolina loss, Clinton suggested that Obama won because he is black: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign and Obama ran a good campaign here."
The context for revisiting Clinton's alleged racist remarks is his Wednesday speech before the Democratic National Convention. Lizza notes that while there has been much tension between Obama and the Clintons in the past, both parties have found mutual benefit in repairing the relationship.
Clinton has now become central to Obama's reelection message. The last time we had a strong economy, we had a Democratic president; reelect Obama and the United States will have a strong economy again, the Obama campaign argues. Clinton is featured in a new campaign ad and will give the prime time address the night before Obama's acceptance speech.
"Now that Obama has turned the campaign into something of a referendum on Clinton's sterling record on the economy, Clinton can hardly complain," Lizza concludes. "That may be part of Obama's strategy, too. Flattered by the attention, Clinton now has an incentive to work hard for Obama, who seems to have learned how to tame the former President."