A supposedly incriminating clip debunks the myth of insufficient vetting, proves little about Obama, and distracts from more serious issues.
There is no better testament to the influence of the late Andrew Breitbart than the buzz over a 1991 video of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School that Breitbart.com is heralding. Unfortunately, the buzz also points to the other side of Breitbart's legacy: a tendency to overhype non-stories.
For weeks, Breitbart.com's scoop has been hotly anticipated. Prior to the publisher-provocateur's untimely death, he said he was working on a project to "vet" President Obama, especially his record at Harvard Law School -- a task he felt had not been done. But if this video is the best his allies can do, either Obama's Harvard days aren't fertile ground for opposition researchers or else he was better vetted four years ago than Breitbart thought.
Here's a brief timeline: On Wednesday, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski found the video that Breitbart.com had been teasing and posted it. In the evening, the editor of Big Government claimed on Fox News that the video had been "selectively edited." Given the history of the Shirley Sherrod video, that claim was either amusingly hypocritical or else a moment of brilliant irony. In any case, Frontline has the entire video, so you can see for yourself.
Let's start with the controversy itself. Obama was introducing Derrick Bell, then a professor at Harvard who announced he was going on unpaid leave until the school hired a tenured female faculty member of color. At the time, there were none. Interestingly, this remains a serious problem at Harvard. Here's Guy-Uriel Charles, a professor at Duke Law School, writing at the time of former HLS Dean Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court:
Of the 32 new hires [while she was dean], only seven were women. So, she hired 25 white men, six white women, and one Asian American woman. Please do not tell me that there were not enough qualified women and people of color. That's a racist and sexist statement. It cannot be the case that there was not a single qualified black, Latino or Native-American legal academic that would qualify for tenure at Harvard Law School during Elena Kagan's tenure.
Harvard Law School could not immediately provide demographics on its faculty members. Some slightly out-of-date info is available on a Harvard University site about faculty diversity.
Breitbart.com is charging that there was a massive cover-up of the whole flap, pointing to a video of Charles Ogletree, an Obama mentor and Harvard Law professor, saying, "We hid this throughout the 2008 campaign." But this is bogus -- and not just because the video clearly shows it's a throwaway laugh line. This incident is well known. It was covered at the time, and it's been covered since. David Remnick wrote about it in his major Obama biography, The Bridge. In fact, Frontline used some of this very same footage in a 2008 documentary about Obama. It's valid to ask whether Obama was vetted as fully as he should have been, but this incident is evidence for the proposition that he was.
But for the sake of discussion, let's imagine there was a cover-up. First, one has to believe that Obama's act of introducing and praising Bell for wanting a more diverse faculty is evidence of radical leanings. Apparently, the Breitbart crew believes that the hug alone is incriminating -- hence Ogletree's alleged suppression of the embrace. But is anyone really that surprised that a young black leader in the Harvard Law School community would be sympathetic to a call for more black faculty members? Indeed, there's evidence that Obama was not seen as a zealot on the issue by his peers. During this famously polarized time at the law school, Obama won an election to be president of the Harvard Law Review in part because he was able to earn the trust of the liberal and conservative wings of the publication.
To be sure, Bell's legal ideas are controversial, if not necessarily radical. He used fictional parables in his work, and he was a pioneer of critical race theory, a branch of law similar to literary theory that critiques what it sees as embedded racism in legal structures. But Obama doesn't address those matters in his videotaped introduction, and as a law professor at the University of Chicago, he focused on constitutional issues, not critical legal theory. A better test of Obama's own legal views would be to look at his teaching career.
But here's a secret: there is evidence of Obama consorting with a controversial, fiery, radical black man, and there's evidence that their relationship extended beyond jointly appearing at a rally. His name is Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In contrast to Bell, whose basic argument is that the law should be more racially equitable and who spent decades fighting Jim Crow laws in the American South, Wright said some truly inflammatory things -- most notably, "God damn America!"
Everyone knows what happened when these statements came to light in 2008: Obama repudiated Wright, gave a speech on race that was widely praised by liberal and conservatives alike, and went on to win the White House. If Wright's blunt speech and clear link to Obama weren't enough to dissuade voters from picking the president, it's tough to see how a tenuous connection with a law professor whose ideas are arcane even within legal academia is going to upend the presidency. Even if the Breitbart crew is still reserving some inflammatory information about Bell, they'll still have to make a case connecting those ideas to Obama. Besides, most Americans -- including those who oppose programs like affirmative action -- are broadly in agreement with the idea that racial equality is a positive thing. Does the Breitbart crew really want to make a stand on the idea that fighting for equality makes Obama a dangerous radical?
If nothing else, this controversy points to an odd feature of a certain slice of conservative opposition. Many conservatives oppose Obama because they disagree with him on substantive issues, from tax rates to health-care reform, from how to handle Iran to how to handle financial reform. But there's another, large group that seems to view opposing Obama as a motive in itself. This group has been trying to prove for years that Obama is a dangerous radical and that his past proves that. But Obama is no longer an unfamiliar figure. Put another way, it no longer matters whether Obama was properly vetted four years ago, because voters have had three years of his government to vet him. They will judge him based on that, not what he might have said 21 years ago -- especially when it's as anodyne as this.
The president has many weaknesses in his quest for a second term. His track record over the last three years, however, is one of his greatest assets, and -- as I wrote this morning -- he wants to make the election a referendum on the past. By making the conversation about sideshows like this, the Breitbart crew may be making his task that much easier.