WASHINGTON — House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn objected Thursday to coverage of his views on the impact of President Barack Obama's race on assessments of his performance in the White House.
In a letter to the editor of The State newspaper in Clyburn's hometown of Columbia, S.C., the No. 3 House Democrat said an article published Thursday had sensationalized his perspectives on the ties between Obama's race and his work as president.
"I have always abhorred the word 'racism,' " Clyburn said in the letter. "I never use it. I believe it is a lethal term, and I am offended that my honest responses to a reporter's clearly designed agenda would be distorted in such a manner."
The article was published in The State, in other South Carolina newspapers and on dozens of McClatchy and non-McClatchy websites around the country.
There were more than 1,100 comments about the article within 24 hours of its posting on www.mccclatchydc.com and more than 450 comments on www.thestate.com in the same period.
"You know, I'm 70 years old," the article quoted Clyburn as saying. "And I can tell you; people don't like to deal with it, but the fact of the matter is, the president's problems are in large measure because of his skin color."
Clyburn then described hateful mail, phone calls and faxes he receives as the highest-ranking African-American in Congress. He suggested that Obama receives similar materials.
In his letter, Clyburn correctly noted that his interview hadn't been arranged to discuss the influence of Obama's race as the first black president.
"There were four people in the room when McClatchy reporter Jim Rosen came to interview me regarding my position on the Vice President's deficit-reduction committee," Clyburn wrote in the letter.
Clyburn answered questions about his role on that panel for 15 minutes. The interview then turned to several other issues, which he addressed without objection.
Clyburn discussed Newt Gingrich's recent controversial comments about Medicare, and then turned to his role in having helped obtain $150,000 from the Army Corps of Engineers for a study on deepening the Charleston port.
Next, Clyburn was asked for his views on Obama's re-election prospects. After saying "They're improving every day," Clyburn said Obama had "been a good president, a great commander in chief."
Without any prompting or further questioning, Clyburn then brought up Obama's race. On his own, Clyburn said that "the president's problems are in large measure because of his skin color."
Clyburn didn't retract or otherwise repudiate anything he was quoted as saying in the original article.
"I do believe President Obama faces challenges other presidents have not due to the color of his skin," Clyburn wrote in his letter to the editor. "To think otherwise, I believe is naive and fails to consider our nation's historic struggle on the issue of race. But it's not the only issue that defines him, or the only issue for which I relate to him."
A transcript of the relevant portion of the McClatchy interview with Clyburn:
QUESTION: What do you think of Obama's election prospects?
CLYBURN: I think they're improving every day. I think the president has been a good president, a great commander in chief. I think when people allow themselves to — you know, I'm 70 years old. And I can tell you; people don't like to deal with it, but the fact of the matter is, the president's problems are in large measure because of his skin color. All you got to do is look at all the signs they're carrying out there and look at the mail that I get. As I said, I'm 70 years old, I been going through this kind of stuff all my life. I know what kind of mail I get, I know what kind of phone calls I get, I know what people are saying who call the office.
QUESTION: How does that relate to the president?
CLYBURN: We have the same skin color; that's how it relates to him.
QUESTION: So they're willing to say these things to you, you're a congressman, they're maybe not as willing to say them as directly to the president?
CLYBURN: Well, who said that? I'll tell you about the president. The president can read. I read the (unintelligible), he can read the same (unintelligible) as I'm reading. When he sees his face being put on a chimpanzee's body, do you think he didn't see that? And I suspect they send the same faxes to his office they send to mine.
QUESTION: Do you agree with his decision to release his full-form birth certificate?
CLYBURN: Well, yeah, I agree with that. I don't know why anybody didn't ask for John McCain's. He wasn't even born in this country. Nobody asked for his birth certificate.
CLYBURN'S LETTER TO THE EDITOR
May 26, 2011
To the Editor:
There were four people in the room when McClatchy reporter Jim Rosen came to interview me regarding my position on the Vice President's deficit reduction committee - myself, Mr. Rosen, my Communications Director, and a young man from Charlotte, North Carolina preparing to graduate from High School who was shadowing me for a few days. We clearly left the room with two completely different understandings of the conversation, as was evident in Mr. Rosen's article of May 26, 2011.
Those who know me, know this to be true - I have always abhorred the word "racism." I never use it. I believe it is a lethal term, and I am offended that my honest responses to a reporter's clearly designed agenda would be distorted in such a manner. However, this is the same reporter who turned my ascension to the position of House Majority Whip into an issue of race as well, so I should not be surprised.
When I was still a young man in Charleston, before I first ran for office in 1970, I had a conversation with Rowenia Tobias, a very well-heeled white woman from an old Charleston family. In that conversation, she advised me that Charlestonians could never get past the issue of race, because they weren't willing to talk about it. Mrs. Tobias made me promise her that I would never stop talking about the issue of race, and I believe I have held true to that promise.
There are people I know who don't have a prejudiced bone in their body, but think consciously about race. We can never solve the issue of race if we aren't willing to discuss it openly and honestly. We dampen any efforts to transcend race by making it a lightening rod. It was clear that Mr. Rosen had an agenda for his article, which was not the one presented to my office nor the one we discussed for the majority of our so-called interview. I have made the same remarks to other reporters on numerous occasions, and this is the first time anyone has sought to sensationalize my comments.
I do believe President Obama faces challenges other presidents have not, due to the color of his skin. To think otherwise, I believe is naive and fails to consider our nation's historic struggle on the issue of race. But it's not the only issue that defines him, or the only issue for which I relate to him. However, it is an issue - thanks in part to Rowenia Tobias - that I will continue to speak out about and will not be intimidated by a reporter's outlandish stories or the hateful comments those stories generate against me.
James E. Clyburn
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