On the Complexity of Making Things Complicated

Hillary Clinton

Sometimes the key to politics is to make things complicated not so much by making them actually complicated, but by complicating things with additional layers and steps. Political discourse is something like the living, realtime inspiration for internet chatter; after two or three quick rounds it’s hard to tell what anyone is referring to, anymore.

But at the same time, it is not as if the rhetorical devices of American politics are especially complex. Consider, for instance, Paul Krugman:

This policy unity has been helped by the fact that Obama has had a moderate degree of success in achieving these goals. If he had had an easy time, the party might be divided between those wanting more radical action and those not in a hurry; if he had failed utterly, the party might be divided (as it was for much of the past three decades) between a liberal faction and a Republican-lite faction. As it is, however, Obama has managed to achieve a lot of what Democrats have sought for generations, but only with great difficulty against scorched-earth opposition. This means that the conflict between “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — exemplified these days by Elizabeth Warren — and the more pro-big-business wing is relatively muted: the liberal wing knows that Obama has gotten most of what could be gotten, and the actual policies haven’t been the kind that would scare off the less liberal wing.

One would think this easy piece of political perspective would not be so rare in our discourse, but for some reason—perhaps a tendency toward equivocation for the sake of narrative simplification—it sometimes seems useful to take a moment and think about how it comes about.

Continue reading

Republicans and Jobs

Brief notes worth remembering:

Paul Krugman, shortly after the midterm election:

Eric CantorSo what’s really motivating the G.O.P. attack on the Fed? Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues were clearly caught by surprise, but the budget expert Stan Collender predicted it all. Back in August, he warned Mr. Bernanke that “with Republican policy makers seeing economic hardship as the path to election glory,” they would be “opposed to any actions taken by the Federal Reserve that would make the economy better.” In short, their real fear is not that Fed actions will be harmful, it is that they might succeed.

Hence the axis of depression. No doubt some of Mr. Bernanke’s critics are motivated by sincere intellectual conviction, but the core reason for the attack on the Fed is self-interest, pure and simple. China and Germany want America to stay uncompetitive; Republicans want the economy to stay weak as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House.

GOP stalwart Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan and Poppy Bush administrations, as well as former aide to Reps. Jack Kemp and Ron Paul:

Deficits and thh Economy During the Great DepressionIt is starting to look like 1937 all over again. As the table below indicates, the economy made a significant recovery after hitting bottom in 1932, when real gross domestic product fell 13 percent. The contraction moderated considerably in 1933, and in 1934 growth was robust, with real G.D.P. rising 11 percent. Growth was also strong in 1935 and 1936, which brought the unemployment rate down more than half from its peak and relieved the devastating deflation that was at the root of the economy’s problems.

By 1937, President Roosevelt and the Federal Reserve thought self-sustaining growth had been restored and began worrying about unwinding the fiscal and monetary stimulus, which they thought would become a drag on growth and a source of inflation. There was also a strong desire to return to normality, in both monetary and fiscal policy.

On the fiscal side, Roosevelt was under pressure from his Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, to balance the budget. Like many conservatives today, Mr. Morgenthau worried obsessively about business confidence and was convinced that balancing the budget would be expansionary. In the words of the historian John Morton Blum, Mr. Morgenthau said he believed recovery “depended on the willingness of business to increase investments, and this in turn was a function of business confidence,” adding, “In his view only a balanced budget could sustain that confidence.”

Roosevelt ordered a very big cut in federal spending in early 1937, and it fell to $7.6 billion in 1937 and $6.8 billion in 1938 from $8.2 billion in 1936, a 17 percent reduction over two years.

At the same time, taxes increased sharply because of the introduction of the payroll tax. Federal revenues rose to $5.4 billion in 1937 and $6.7 billion in 1938, from $3.9 billion in 1936, an increase of 72 percent. As a consequence, the federal deficit fell from 5.5 percent of G.D.P. in 1936 to a mere 0.5 percent in 1938. The deficit was just $89 million in 1938.

At the same time, the Federal Reserve was alarmed by inflation rates that were high by historical standards, as well as by the large amount of reserves in the banking system, which could potentially fuel a further rise in inflation. Using powers recently granted by the Banking Act of 1935, the Fed doubled reserve requirements from August 1936 to May 1937. Higher reserve requirements restricted the amount of money banks could lend and caused them to tighten credit.

This combination of fiscal and monetary tightening – which conservatives advocate today – brought on a sharp recession beginning in May 1937 and ending in June 1938, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Real G.D.P. fell 3.4 percent in 1938, and the unemployment rate rose to 12.5 percent from 9.2 percent in 1937.

And then there is this, from John S. Irons of the Economic Policy Institute:

The agreement to raise the debt ceiling just announced by policymakers in Washington not only erodes funding for public investments and safety-net spending, but also misses an important opportunity to address the lack of jobs. The spending cuts in 2012 and the failure to continue two key supports to the economy (the payroll tax holiday and emergency unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed) could lead to roughly 1.8 million fewer jobs in 2012, relative to current budget policy.

Economic Policy Institute Debt Ceiling Jobs Outlook

Continue reading

Hell, or, A Conversation with Brooks and Collins

This is your brain on drugs.I have a new vision of Hell, which is sitting around the “conversation pit” getting stoned with New York Times columnists David Brooks and Gail Collins. Apparently, the two get together and talk about issues for the newspaper’s Opinionator blog every Wednesday. To borrow a phrase from Supreme Court Nominee and current Solicitor General Elena Kagan, I wish they wouldn’t.

This week, the Dullard Duo took on one of the vital economic questions of the times: Deficit reduction or job creation?

Gail Collins: David, I was very interested in your column attacking the idea of a second stimulus. In fact, I was so interested that I almost put down my copy of this week’s New York Magazine, which has a big profile of you and your “charming, levelheaded optimism.” I agree totally with that assessment, although I part company with the author when it comes to your suits, which are certainly not shapeless.

The article also says that because of your book deadlines, you are only getting four hours of sleep a night. So I feel terrible asking you to converse about anything, let alone the economy.

David Brooks: My suits are absolutely shapeless. They are sartorial cumulus clouds. Given my body, shapeless is the best option, believe me. Other than that, I thought the profiler was admirably gentle and forgiving.

I’d like to say things could only get better from there, but … yeah. I’d also like to say it would be enlightening to hear an actual recording of this conversation in order to pick up some of the nuance, but, again … er … yeah. Continue reading

Notes On the Health Care Battle: Dust and Smoke

Only vague first impressions; it’s difficult to get any real perspective while so much dust and smoke hangs in the air after the conflagration.

Paul Krugman, before the vote:

Adam Zyglis via CagleSo what’s the reality of the proposed reform? Compared with the Platonic ideal of reform, Obamacare comes up short. If the votes were there, I would much prefer to see Medicare for all.

For a real piece of passable legislation, however, it looks very good. It wouldn’t transform our health care system; in fact, Americans whose jobs come with health coverage would see little effect. But it would make a huge difference to the less fortunate among us, even as it would do more to control costs than anything we’ve done before.

This is a reasonable, responsible plan. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Republican David Frum on the political fallout:

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.

Only, the hardliners overlooked a few key facts: Obama was elected with 53% of the vote, not Clinton’s 42%. The liberal block within the Democratic congressional caucus is bigger and stronger than it was in 1993-94. And of course the Democrats also remember their history, and also remember the consequences of their 1994 failure.

This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.

Kirk Walters via CagleCould a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.

Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.

No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?

Continue reading

Serious People

Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Krugman:

I do have one qualm, though, which isn’t really about Bernanke, but rather about the broader symbolism of the reappointment — namely, it unfortunately seems to be a reaffirmation of Serious Person Syndrome, aka it’s better to have been conventionally wrong than unconventionally right.

Thus, you’re not considered serious on national security unless you bought the case for invading Iraq, even though the skeptics were completely right; you’re not considered a serious political commentator unless you dismissed all the things those reflexive anti-Bushists were saying, even though they all turn out to have been true; and you’re not considered serious about economic policy unless you dismissed warnings about a housing bubble and waved off worries about future crises.

All that while praising Bernanke’s reappointment as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Still, though, he has a point about Serious Person Syndrome. That’s the important part. Come on, Bernanke nominated for another term? Was that somehow unexpected?

So, anyway, I looked up the phrase, and aside from Schott’s Vocab, where I picked this up, the phrase isn’t largely used. The rest of the Google result is dominated by “Stiff Person Syndrome”.

So now I want to call the Bernankes and such, the Serious Person Syndrome people, well, yeah.

Never mind.

The purpose of health care is to make lots of money

Paul Krugman on how insurance companies are gearing up to fight the Obama health plan even as they claim to want to be a part of it:

The Post has the storyboards for the ads, and they read just like the infamous Harry and Louise ads that helped kill health care reform in 1993. Troubled Americans are shown being denied their choice of doctor, or forced to wait months for appointments, by faceless government bureaucrats. It’s a scary image that might make some sense if private health insurance — which these days comes primarily via HMOs — offered all of us free choice of doctors, with no wait for medical procedures. But my health plan isn’t like that. Is yours?

“We can do a lot better than a government-run health care system,” says a voice-over in one of the ads. To which the obvious response is, if that’s true, why don’t you? Why deny Americans the chance to reject government insurance if it’s really that bad?

For none of the reform proposals currently on the table would force people into a government-run insurance plan. At most they would offer Americans the choice of buying into such a plan.

And the goal of the insurers is to deny Americans that choice. They fear that many people would prefer a government plan to dealing with private insurance companies that, in the real world as opposed to the world of their ads, are more bureaucratic than any government agency, routinely deny clients their choice of doctor, and often refuse to pay for care.

As we go forward in this critical and oft-complicated debate, I would simply ask people to keep a certain point in mind:

    The primary concern of the health care industry is profit.

What? It’s the way private enterprise works.

Obama and expectation

Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman brings us, with his latest column, an assessment of Senator Barack Obama, considering the Democratic presidential candidate in the context of two other elections, those of 1980 and 1992:

It’s feeling a lot like 1992 right now. It’s also feeling a lot like 1980. But which parallel is closer? Is Barack Obama going to be a Ronald Reagan of the left, a president who fundamentally changes the country’s direction? Or will he be just another Bill Clinton? ….

…. Reagan, for better or worse — I’d say for worse, but that’s another discussion — brought a lot of change. He ran as an unabashed conservative, with a clear ideological agenda. And he had enormous success in getting that agenda implemented. He had his failures, most notably on Social Security, which he tried to dismantle but ended up strengthening. But America at the end of the Reagan years was not the same country it was when he took office.

Bill Clinton also ran as a candidate of change, but it was much less clear what kind of change he was offering. He portrayed himself as someone who transcended the traditional liberal-conservative divide, proposing “a government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement.” The economic plan he announced during the campaign was something of a hodgepodge: higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes for the middle class, public investment in things like high-speed rail, health care reform without specifics.

We all know what happened next. The Clinton administration achieved a number of significant successes, from the revitalization of veterans’ health care and federal emergency management to the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and health insurance for children. But the big picture is summed up by the title of a new book by the historian Sean Wilentz: “The Age of Reagan: A history, 1974-2008.”

While there are also fundamental differences in the context of the circumstances under which the Reagan and Clinton presidencies occurred, Krugman—who during the primary often criticized Obama—is not without a valid point. Having achieved the nomination, Obama has followed a trend disturbing to American liberals, one that suggests a transformation of the candidate into a different kind of political creature. His withdrawal from public financing, while understandable in a political context, is disappointing, to say the least, for liberals hopeful of a president of principles. And his support of the recent FISA “compromise” ranges into the realm of the frustrating.
Continue reading

How strange can it get?

It’s just one of those things that makes me wonder how desperate the situation has gotten. Only two events done in a long list of fifty, and already the confusion and nervous hand-wringing has escalated the discussion to a nearly incoherent fever pitch. No, I’m not talking about any particular presidential campaign but, rather, the press corps that covers the campaign.

The mystery beginsThe current situation starts, for me, as a note on the front page of the Doonesbury Town Hall, where the Daily Briefing headlines include a note that “King Slight Could Linger”. Clicking on the link, perusing the collection of headlines assembled by NewsTrust, I am unable to find the relevant story. I use my browser’s find function, and cannot come up with a “king” that matches. (There is “breaking“, “talking“, “looking“, “asking“, &c., but nothing on “King”.) So I head on over to Google, which kindly and quickly suggests Seth Gitell’s January 10 article for the New York Sun, “Slight of King Could Linger for Voters“.


Senator Clinton’s comment stressing the importance of President Johnson at the expense of the role of Martin Luther King Jr. may come back to haunt her in the battle to attract African American voters, who make up half of the Democratic electorate in the upcoming South Carolina primary.

The situation underscores the perils for Mrs. Clinton as she confronts a challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination from Senator Obama. Her attempts to criticize Mr. Obama risk backfiring and alienating black voters, an important Democratic constituency.

Gitell notes a New York Times editorial that “cautioned that Mrs. Clinton ‘came perilously close to injecting racial tension'” into an “uplifting” historical occasion, e.g., a showdown between the first major female and first major African-American contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Reading through Gitell’s article, it is hard to find a description of the actual offense Senator Clinton has allegedly committed. But there is this paragraph:

The Obama camp and civil rights leaders independent of the political campaigns yesterday seized on Mrs. Clinton’s statement, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964…It took a president to get it done.”

Okay. Gitell tells of Crown Heights Assemblyman Karim Camara, who talked about receiving calls from surprised constituents, colleagues, and pastors. Mr. Camara talked about sensitivity to language, and how that might benefit Senator Obama’s campaign. Gitell also notes Michael Meyers, of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, who said Clinton was out of line, and how her comments seemed “to be desperate and a misreading of history”. Indeed, Mr. Meyers called Clinton’s statements “ignorant of the participation of everyday people, including Dr. King”.

So it couldn’t possibly be the short quip Gitell had cited that has everybody up in arms, could it?

I head over to the New York Times for more. In the middle of a January 9 editorial comes this stinging indictment:

In Mrs. Clinton’s zeal to make the case that experience (hers) is more important than inspirational leadership (Mr. Obama’s), she made some peculiar comments about the relative importance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson to the civil rights cause. She complimented Dr. King’s soaring rhetoric, but said: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. … It took a president to get it done.”

Why Mrs. Clinton would compare herself to Mr. Johnson, who escalated the war in Vietnam into a generational disaster, was baffling enough. It was hard to escape the distasteful implication that a black man needed the help of a white man to effect change. She pulled herself back from the brink by later talking about the mistreatment and danger Dr. King faced. Former President Bill Clinton, who seems to forget he is not the one running, hurled himself over the edge on Monday with a bizarre and rambling attack on Mr. Obama.

Mr. Clinton has generally been a statesman as ex-president, and keeping up this sort of behavior will undermine his credibility and ability to do more good.

What, seriously? Did I really just read that?

It really does seem a bit of bluster over a few words, especially when nobody is explaining what, exactly, the offense is. As near as I can tell, President Johnson’s role in the civil rights drama should, according to the New York Times be ignored because of his role in Vietnam.

And maybe it has something to do with the words themselves. “Realize”. Most people treat the word differently than its components: “real” and “-ize”. The former is obvious, and the suffix? Is there some problem I’m unaware of? While many people might treat the word “realize” as synonymous to “understand”—e.g. did Clinton not realize that she was putting herself in a vulnerable position, given a contentious primary cycle and a hostile, embarrassed press corps reeling from its own punch-drunk speculations that crashed spectacularly on a Tuesday night in New Hampshire?—but there is another fairly common usage, as well, which is “to make real”. Other words people use—perhaps because some are confused by such a use of the word “realize”—are “actualize” and one of my favorite made-up words, “concretize”.

It seems to me that no matter how much dreaming Dr. King might have done, at some point some politician somewhere needed to implement that dream. And, the Vietnam debacle and the Times‘ distaste notwithstanding, that politician was President Lyndon Johnson.

If you’re confused by now, so am I. The best thing to do at this point would be to get it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Given the nature of the twenty-first century presidential horserace, is there any reason the statement in question wouldn’t be at YouTube?

Of course not. It’s 2008. If this one has escaped YouTube, it might be a sign of the Apocalypse.

Hmph. Really? That’s it? As specific an answer as you’re going to get from a politician to a specific question? Seriously, that’s really what’s at the heart of the hullaballoo?

At first viewing—and, truth told, all subsequent viewings—I’m hard-pressed to understand where the offense is. Someone needs to explain it to me directly and specifically.

Looking around for some sort of explanation, I land on Michael Fauntroy’s article, posted earlier today. The first clue is the title: “Johnson Did Help Give Life to King’s Dream“.


Hillary Clinton has been taking a beating for a comment she recently made regarding Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the role President Lyndon Johnson played in bringing about the legislative change sought by the civil rights movement. She noted that King’s dream began to come into focus when President Lyndon Johnson supported and signed into law important civil rights legislation. Some African Americans, sadly disconnected from the historical record, took the comment as a slight to King’s legacy. Conservatives did what they usually do, stoking the fire by suggesting that Clinton simply dissed the Black icon and should be punished by African American voters. (Disclosure: Neither Clinton nor Senator Barack Obama is my preferred presidential candidate). Clinton is factually right and, after seeing the video of the comment, I am convinced that she met no disrespect to King’s legacy.

My interest in King is more than academic. I’m blessed to [be] a nephew of Rev. Walter Fauntroy, one of Dr. King’s chief lieutenants. He has long told me of his work during this period and how the man (King) and the movement coalesced and unified the country, which became outraged by what they saw on the evening news night after night. He also told me something that I tell my students: ideas and movements mean nothing if they don’t change public policy. Mass movements and demonstrations are designed to prick the conscience of the country on a given issue. At that point the legislative process takes over. That process must go through the president. A supportive president can accelerate change. An obstinate president (see Bush, G.W. – Iraq) can thwart a movement, even though it might have a majority of support in Congress.

My uncle has told me a thousand times about how important Lyndon Johnson was to making the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 a reality. He sacrificed his own favor with southern conservatives to do the right thing. I see a particular irony that some southern Black elected officials, some of whom owe their seats in Congress to the changes effectuated by the Voting Rights Act, now criticizing Clinton for remembering her civil rights history. Noting Johnson’s role is not disrespectful to King’s legacy. It’s simply a historical fact. And Clinton’s memory seems to be on target.

I suppose it’s not fair to take comfort from the fact that an assistant professor of public policy from George Mason University is willing to state so dramatically something so reflective of my suspicion. Perhaps he’s blinded by sentiment, being the nephew of a prestigious historical personage; perhaps his heritage gives him a stake in this debate that makes him unreliable. After all, it could not be that this whole controversy is driven largely by a the press, which, on the one hand has a long dislike for the Clintons and, toPresident Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964 (photo by Stoughton) the other, was thoroughly embarrassed by Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire, right?

We cannot forget civil rights groups who are, understandably, tired of any implication that civil rights and human decency are somehow a privilege awarded by whites. The aforementioned Mr. Meyers finds company in Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), himself a prestigious figure in civil rights history, who has has reminded that “We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about” civil rights. According to Carl Hulse:

Mr. Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a power in state Democratic politics, put himself on the sidelines more than a year ago to help secure an early primary for South Carolina, saying he wanted to encourage all candidates to take part. But he said recent remarks by the Clintons that he saw as distorting civil rights history could change his mind.

“We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics,” said Mr. Clyburn, who was shaped by his searing experiences as a youth in the segregated South and his own activism in those days. “It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal.”

And while it is difficult to take issue with such a luminary of the civil rights struggle, Mr. Fauntroy’s observation is valid. Hulse’s article for the New York Times does not include Rep. Clyburn’s explanation of just how Clinton has denigrated Dr. King or the civil rights era in general. It is almost as if some are seeking a reason to be offended.

Mr. Clyburn, reached for a telephone interview Wednesday during an overseas inspection of port facilities, also voiced frustration with former President Clinton, who described Mr. Obama’s campaign narrative as a fairy tale. While Mr. Clinton was not discussing civil rights at the time and seemed to be referring mainly to Mr. Obama’s stance at the Iraq war, Mr. Clyburn saw the remark as a slap at the image of a black candidate running on a theme of unity and optimism.

“To call that dream a fairy tale, which Bill Clinton seemed to be doing, could very well be insulting to some of us,” said Mr. Clyburn, who said he and others took significant risks more than 40 years ago to produce such opportunities for future black Americans.

Unity and optimism, indeed. But such a sunny outlook can certainly be overextended. This point was at the heart of Paul Krugman’s criticism last month of the Obama campaign. In that case, Krugman assailed Obama’s idealism vis á vis wealthy and influential American corporations.

Do Obama supporters who celebrate his hoped-for ability to bring us together realize that “us” includes the insurance and drug lobbies?

O.K., more seriously, it’s actually Mr. Obama who’s being unrealistic here, believing that the insurance and drug industries — which are, in large part, the cause of our health care problems — will be willing to play a constructive role in health reform. The fact is that there’s no way to reduce the gross wastefulness of our health system without also reducing the profits of the industries that generate the waste.

As a result, drug and insurance companies — backed by the conservative movement as a whole — will be implacably opposed to any significant reforms. And what would Mr. Obama do then? “I’ll get on television and say Harry and Louise are lying,” he says. I’m sure the lobbyists are terrified.

As health care goes, so goes the rest of the progressive agenda. Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.

The article sparked a controversy between Obama supporters and the New York Times columnist that lasted a couple weeks. It is important to note, though, that Bill Clinton was not the first to criticize Obama’s campaign vision as dysfunctionally idealistic. John Edwards called Obama’s outlook a “complete fantasy”; Krugman suggested the pitch was fit for a “fantasy world”. Neither of them have faced such stern condemnation from civil rights groups. It seems to me that Fauntroy might have a point that a disconnection has occurred. The unfortunate result is that venerable civil rights leaders such as Rep. Clyburn, and modern activists like NYCRC’s Meyers, do themselves and their work a disservice by making this about race. In the first place, the argument against Clinton’s remarks seems to suggest that acknowledging President Johnson’s role somehow denigrates black people and the civil rights movement. Secondly, there is an appearance that some are willing to use skin color in order to bait the controversy. And, of course, a smarting, bloodthirsty press will only complicate matters by actualizing the exploitation.

It seems a testament to the perversity of the American political arena that Hillary Clinton should be the villain in this particular dispute. On the one hand, Obama seems free to invoke Dr. King at will. To the other, Hillary Clinton, oft-criticized for her failure to give a straightforward answer, seems obliged—as the controversy suggests—to dodge a direct question or, perhaps in deference to Rep. Clyburn’s warning that we must “be very, very careful” about how we speak about civil rights, give a canned answer divorced from history when asked a specific question about Obama’s pointed reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. And, to yet another, I still don’t understand how, according to Rep. Clyburn, Mr. Meyers, the New York Times, or any number of critics, Dr. King’s famous, inspiring dream could begin growing into reality without President Johnson, or someone his equal, to shepherd and sign the Civil Rights Act.

More important than Hillary Clinton, per se, is the bizarre aspect that resembles race-baiting. The rise of a black frontrunner in the Democratic contest for the presidential ticket ought to signify a waning color divide in our society. Yet this controversy suggests the opposite, that, while we are prepared to at least pay lip service to such noble aspirations, we are somehow not ready to get over our racist American heritage, that we are not going to let go of the past and look to the future without at least one last desperate twist of the knife. Perhaps there is a grassroots corruption taking place. Assemblyman Camara describes getting calls from constituents, elected officials, and fellow pastors expressing surprise. Perhaps, in grasping for a sense of authority in a tumultuous period of redefinition, a significant number of people who should be reassuring those who inquire are, instead, exploiting the occasion, fanning the fires, in order to assuage their own insecurities with an illusion of control. It is hard to tell from afar. Then again, this whole controversy is puzzling, and seems, frankly, much ado about nothing. Which, of course, lends the issue a sordid, tragic air. And in that we come to the heart of the matter: the sordid and tragic, whose relationship is characterized by extraneity, hurts us all.