Alter falsely asserted Clinton's "chief strategist" "raised" Obama's drug use

››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

On Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Jonathan Alter falsely asserted that Sen. Hillary Clinton's "chief strategist" was among the "Clinton surrogates" who have "raised these drug issues" about Sen. Barack Obama. In fact, during a December 13 appearance on Hardball, Clinton chief strategist Mark Penn did not bring up Obama's drug use -- the entire segment was devoted to controversial comments about Obama's past drug use by then-Clinton campaign co-chair Billy Shaheen.

Appearing on the January 17 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Newsweek columnist and senior editor Jonathan Alter falsely asserted that Sen. Hillary Clinton's "chief strategist" was among the "Clinton surrogates" who have "raised these drug issues" about Sen. Barack Obama. In fact, as Media Matters for America has repeatedly documented, during a December 13 appearance on MSNBC's Hardball, Clinton chief strategist Mark Penn did not bring up Obama's drug use. The entire December 13 Hardball segment was devoted to controversial comments about Obama's past drug use by then-Clinton campaign co-chair Billy Shaheen, who had resigned earlier that day in the ensuing controversy. Hardball host Chris Matthews explicitly asked Penn at least three distinct questions about the topic, two of which directly referenced "drugs" or "drug use." Penn offered at least two specific responses before he referred to drugs at all and did so only in direct response to Matthews' question about whether "going after his [Obama's] perhaps youthful drug use" is an "appropriate shot[] at the opponent or ... below the belt." Prior to his reference to "cocaine," Penn had disavowed Shaheen's comments.

Additionally, in a January 15 post on The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire blog, reporter Susan Davis asserted that Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY), a Clinton supporter, "further pushed the drug issue" during an interview on Inside City Hall, a program on the New York City news channel NY1 News. Davis wrote that Rangel "further pushed the drug issue, calling it a 'big mistake' for Obama to have used drugs, adding snarkily, 'For him to be honest enough to write about it, I guess he thought it might sell books.' " But contrary to Davis' assertion, Inside City Hall host Dominic Carter repeatedly pressed Rangel on the issue, and Rangel stated during the interview that bringing the issue up would be "improper" unless Obama began to criticize "what someone else had done in terms of making a mistake when he was younger, then it would be proper." Carter began the interview as follows: "Let's start with the fact -- let's go back to Senator Obama's book that he wrote in which he acknowledges, on his own, past drug use -- and in the book -- including cocaine." After Carter aired comments by Black Entertainment Television (BET) founder Bob Johnson, Rangel stated that Johnson "doesn't help anybody in talking about what Obama had written in his book" and added: "I think this is ridiculous, and it has no place in our campaign." Carter later asked whether "past drug use" is "irrelevant in a presidential campaign," and Rangel responded, "I'm a lawyer, and I'm not trying to avoid your question, but it's almost like a trial. If a person raises the issue, then it's proper to bring this up against him. But if he had written in a book and it's not relevant, it's improper to bring it up. ... I don't think you should bring it up. But if he were to be critical of someone else's childhood, or what someone else had done in terms of making a mistake when he was younger, then it would be proper." Carter also asked Rangel whether he believed Obama made a "big mistake" by writing about his past drug use, to which Rangel replied: "No. It was a big mistake for him to have done it. For him to be honest enough to write about it -- I guess he thought it might sell books."

From the January 17 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:

OLBERMANN: One other story. The president of change -- that Senator Obama reference, we'll get to in a moment. -- but this other thing I wanted to get to with you. The BET founder, Bob Johnson, apologized for the allusion that was thought to be towards the senator's drug use in his teenage years -- the one that he originally claimed he had never made it in the first place. Wait, I'm missing something again here.

ALTER: Well, his original claim that he wasn't talking about drug use was ridiculous on its face and he was pummeled for it, so he had to back up. But, you know, the larger question here, Keith, is you've now had four different Clinton surrogates, including her chief strategist, who've raised these drug issues. And you can sort of excuse it when it happens once or twice. But when four different surrogates are doing this, you start to see a little bit of a pattern.

From the January 14 edition of NY1's Inside City Hall:

CARTER: Let's start with the fact -- let's go back to Senator Obama's book that he wrote in which he acknowledges, on his own, past drug use -- and in the book -- including cocaine. So now let's fast-forward to a rally this past weekend, and let's listen to a big Clinton supporter, the founder of BET, Bob Johnson, what he had to say about Senator Obama.

JOHNSON: Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood -- that I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book.

CARTER: OK, Congressman. What do you make of that comment? Mr. Johnson says now that he was referring to the fact that Mr. Obama was a community activist and not talking about past drug use. What do you think?

RANGEL: I don't think, to get to the bottom of your agenda, if you're going to spend a whole lot of time of what Robert Johnson has said politically. A good businessman he is, a politician he is not. So he doesn't help anybody in talking about what Obama had written in his book. Or, for that matter, I hope he doesn't go read my book and perhaps your book, in terms of what happened when we were kids. No, I think this is ridiculous, and it has no place in our campaign.

CARTER: Big mistake by Mr. Johnson?

RANGEL: I don't know how big it is. Who will remember who Mr. Johnson is on the campaign trail? You know, like, he -- his biggest job is how to count money. He does that well. He's a great investor, and I'm proud of what he does. But I would not advise anyone to bring him on the campaign trail.

CARTER: Why not?

RANGEL: Because I don't know who would be overly impressed with his remarks. I mean, I just can't imagine to say, "I've been endorsed by Bob Johnson of BET." Do you?

CARTER: Well, Congressman, you know, some will say that it's dirty tricks to allude to past drug use. Do you agree with that?

RANGEL: I don't see where it's relevant. You know, if you came "holier than thou," you know, condemning me and my kids for something that we have done. Assuming you were Rudolph Giuliani, you were critical of me, in terms of anything involving my domestic life, I'd say, "Come on, Rudy." You know, it all depends on what it is. But to bring it up, I don't think there's any need for that.

CARTER: But is drug use irrelevant in a presidential campaign, past drug use?

RANGEL: I'm a lawyer, and I'm not trying to avoid your question, but it's almost like a trial. If a person raises the issue, then it's proper to bring this up against him. But if he had written in a book and it's not relevant, it's improper to bring it up. I would not recommend that one would follow the path that he followed as a kid, to give it to teenagers saying, "If you want to become a candidate for president, this is what you do."

And so I don't think you should bring it up. But if he were to be critical of someone else's childhood, or what someone else had done in terms of making a mistake when he was younger, then it would be proper. But just to bring it up --

CARTER: So Senator Obama should not have even written about this? Is that what you're telling me, Congressman?

RANGEL: Of course not. Of course not. I assume that the book was not written for political purposes. It was honest. As a matter of fact, you cannot believe what my son made me take out of my book. You know? He said it was not relevant what I did when I was a kid, and he was right, and I took it out.

CARTER: So it was a big mistake, starting with Senator Obama to even write about this?

RANGEL: No. It was a big mistake for him to have done it. For him to be honest enough to write about it -- I guess he thought it might sell books.

Network/Outlet
MSNBC
Person
Jonathan Alter
Show/Publication
Countdown with Keith Olbermann
Stories/Interests
Hillary Clinton, 2008 Elections
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