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Vetting Obama

An Inside Report by Robert D. Novak

Thursday, January 17, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With Barack Obama nipping at her heels in Iowa, Hillary Clinton went on the state's public television Dec. 14 to say: "I've been vetted. ... There are no surprises."

That was the first use in presidential campaign politics of an unusual word. After losing in Iowa Jan. 3, Sen. Clinton said of Sen. Obama, "Everybody needs to be vetted." Chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn, on the way to New Hampshire, said of his candidate, "She's fully vetted ... and I don't think that process has occurred with Barack Obama." Clinton then told a rally, "Of all the people running for president, I've been the most vetted, the most investigated and -- my goodness -- the most innocent."

This frequent use of "vetted" caught the attention of the Democratic community. "Vetted," with a meaning distinct from "experienced," connotes investigating nominees for vice president, the Cabinet and the federal judiciary to uncover anything disqualifying. Its introduction in the presidential campaign by Clinton is tied to reminders -- overtly and by insinuation -- of Obama's teen-age use of illegal drugs that he confessed in his first book.

The unintended byproduct, to the dismay of Democratic loyalists, disturbs the party's racial chemistry. An assault on the qualifications of Obama, the first African-American with a chance to be elected president, could menace Democratic reliance on overwhelming support for the party's white candidates from black voters. The sudden outbreak of racial conflict in Democratic affairs, which results solely from Clinton's strategy against Obama and has nothing to do with race as such, arouses deep apprehension inside the party.

Clinton agents for many months have privately warned prominent Democrats that Obama as the presidential nominee could not withstand Republican scrutiny ("cannot take a frisk"). While denying my reports of this activity, the Clinton campaign went public when Obama's threat became real instead of merely potential. Billy Shaheen, Clinton's New Hampshire chairman, explicitly raised this long-ago use of cocaine and marijuana, and was fired.

Greg Craig, an Obama senior policy adviser, pointed out to me that the drug question was implied by two other Clinton supporters, Penn and black billionaire Bob Johnson, who were not reprimanded. As for Johnson's denial that he was talking about drugs when he said Obama "was doing something in the neighborhood -- and I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in the book," Craig told me, "I don't believe him."

On the next day, a fourth Clinton supporter, Rep. Charles Rangel, raised the drug issue by saying on black radio that Obama mentioned it in his book because "I guess he thought it might sell books."

Rangel always has seemed to be less of a black politician than a politician who happens to be black. But other African-Americans were incensed by the Clinton vetting. Donna Brazile, the national campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000 and neutral between Obama and Clinton as a CNN commentator, made the first criticism of Bill Clinton anyone had heard from her after he referred to Obama's candidacy as "a fairy tale." She said of the former president, "I find his tone and his words to be very depressing." House Majority Whip James Clyburn, South Carolina's leading black politician, was so upset that he threatened to break his neutrality until Sen. Clinton calmed him down.

Prior to Tuesday night's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, both campaigns declared an end to the "race debate" over whether Martin Luther King or Lyndon B. Johnson was most responsible for civil rights legislation. But the fight really was about the Clintons' resenting an obstacle on their return to the White House. A prominent Democrat who saw the former president this week described him as "furious, outraged, angry and utterly dismissive of Obama."

That anger was reflected by Hillary Clinton's performance on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, when she said, "When Sen. Obama's chief strategist accuses me of playing a role in Benazir Bhutto's assassination, there's silence (from Obama)." Actually, David Axelrod never made such an accusation. He said former Prime Minister Bhutto's death will "call into issue the judgment" of "taking the eye off the ball and making the wrong judgment in going into Iraq." Perhaps Hillary Clinton's comments should be vetted.

My last column should have stated that Sen. John McCain explained early this year, "as he does now, that he opposed Bush's tax cuts because there was no 'commensurate restraint in spending.'" It incorrectly stated "he does not now" -- adding an inadvertent "not."

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