Correction: Obama Did Remove The 2002 Speech From His Website (Temporarily)


cross-posted to Jack & Jill Politics

Doh!

A short while ago, I posted this video of Bill Clinton apologizing-but-not really for his criticism of Obama. He claimed that all of his charges were factually accurate (as opposed to the fictional accuracy so often employed?), and I pointed out that his and Hillary's claim that Obama removed his 2002 anti-war speech from his website the next year (2003) was false. Well, not completely.

I based my claim on this video by renowned tech/copyright policy guru Larry Lessig, who used the Internet Archive to prove their statement false. In his video, Lessig said
Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton have launched an attack on Barack Obama, claiming he has been "inconsistent" about the war. Here's what she said in one of the debates:

It was after having given that speech, by the next year the speech was off your website. By the next year, you were telling reporters that you agreed with the president in his conduct of the war. And by the next year, when you were in the Senate, you were voting to fund the war time after time after time.

Now as Hillary Clinton knows, this statement is both false and misleading. It's false because in fact, the speech that she says was removed from Obama's website remained on Obama's website throughout the course of the next year. You can know that by going to this site, The Archive org's Wayback Machine, and you can actually see copies of the web taken in every couple of month intervals from 1996 on. And here's a copy of the Barack Obama website — we have to decode it a bit by looking at the very top line — this is a copy of February of 2003, there's Obama's speech.

Here's a copy taken in April of 2003, there again is Obama's speech. June, it's still there... August, it's still there... October, it's still there. It was there the whole year. And even after that year Barack continued to lead his Foreign Policy section by describing his strong and consistent and principled opposition to George Bush's decision to take us to war.

But the charge is also misleading, because there's no inconsistency with opposing the war and actually supporting funding for the war once it has been launched or supporting funding for our troops once they are there. Think about Howard Dean, who was the strongest candidate in the 2004 election opposing the war: he absolutely and clearly signalled that even though he opposed the war he would not cut off funding for the troops or withdraw them immediately if he became President.

This is a kind of swiftboating — it takes the strongest feature of Barack's political character here, the fact that he made the right decision about the war, and tries to weaken it by alleging false and misleading facts about that decision.

Indeed if you go to the Wayback Machine, you can find snapshots of Obama's site from February, April, June, August, September, October and December 2003. The speech is in every single one, listed on the "News" or "In the News" tabs depending on which month you check out. It looked pretty cut and dried.

However, Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report (who worked with Obama during his Chicago community organizing days helping register voters) followed up with me and informed me that Obama did indeed remove the speech from his site sometime in May 2003 before restoring it later in June. How does Bruce know this? Because Bruce's site at the time, Black Commentator, was challenging Obama's progressive bona fides.

After Obama appeared on a Democratic Leadership Council "100 Leaders To Watch" list that year, Bruce wrote an article titled "In Search Of The Real Barack Obama: Can a Black Senate candidate resist the DLC?" The story ran on June 3, 2003. An excerpt:
Somebody else's brand of politics appears to have intruded on Obama's campaign. For a while the whole speech could be found on Obama's campaign web site, a key statement of principle for a serious US Senate candidate in an election season when the President's party threatens the world with permanent war and pre-emptive invasion, and cows US citizens with fear mongering, color coded alerts, secret detentions and the abrogation of constitutional liberties. Although Obama may have appeared at meetings of other citizens opposed to the war or let them use his name, no further public statements from the candidate on these important issues have appeared.

Then, a few weeks ago, Barack Obama's heartfelt statement of principled opposition to lawless militarism and the rule of fear was stricken without explanation from his campaign web site, and replaced with mild expressions of "anxiety":

"But I think [people are] all astonished, I think, in many quarters, about, for example, the recent Bush budget and the prospect that, for example, veterans benefits might be cut. And so there's discussion about that, I think, among both supporters and those who are opposed to the war. What kind of world are we building?

And I think that's - the anxiety is about the international prospects and how we potentially reconstruct Iraq. And the costs there, then, tie in very directly with concerns about how we're handling our problems at home."

His passion evaporated, a leading black candidate for the US Senate mouths bland generalities on war, peace and the US role in the world. Barack Obama, professor of constitutional law, is mum on the Patriot Act, silent about increased surveillance of US citizens, secret searches, and detentions without trial. His campaign literature and speeches ignore Patriot Act 2, which would detain US citizens without trial, strip them of their nationality and deport them to - wherever, citizens of no nation.

For a black candidate who is utterly reliant upon a fired up base among African American and progressive voters, who must distinguish himself from a crowded Democratic field, this is strange behavior, indeed. Polls show Blacks have consistently opposed administration war policies by at least two to one, as does the white progressive "base" of the party. Yet Obama appears determined to contain, rather than amplify, these voices.

The story isn't over. Black Commentator received a letter from Obama in response to the piece and ran the letter on June 19, 2003. Here's an excerpt
To begin with, neither my staff nor I have had any direct contact with anybody at DLC since I began this campaign a year ago.  I don't know who nominated me for the DLC list of 100 rising stars, nor did I expend any effort to be included on the list beyond filling out a three line questionnaire asking me to describe my current political office, my proudest accomplishment, and my cardinal rules of politics.  Since my mother taught me not to reject a compliment when it's offered, I didn't object to the DLC's inclusion of my name on their list.  I certainly did not view such inclusion as an endorsement on my part of the DLC platform.

As for Bruce's larger point -- that I've begun to water down my criticisms of the Bush administration during this early phase of my campaign -- I'd invite him to join me on the campaign trail here in Chicago for a couple of days.  I'm proud of the fact that I stood up early and unequivocally in opposition to Bush's foreign policy (and was the only U.S. Senate candidate in Illinois to do so).  That opposition hasn't changed, and I continue to make it a central part of each and every one of my political speeches.  Likewise, I spend much of my time with audiences trying to educate them on the dangers of both the Patriot Act, Patriot Act 2, and the rest of John Ashcroft's assault on the Constitution.  The only reason that my original anti-war speech was removed from my website was a judgment that the speech was dated once the formal phase of the war was over, and my staff's desire to continually provide fresh news clips. The "bland" statement that Bruce offers up as an example of my loss of passion wasn't an official statement or speech at all, but a 30 second response to a specific question by Aaron Brown on CNN about the mood of Illinois voters a few days after the war started.

In sum, Bruce's article makes nice copy, but it doesn't reflect the reality of my campaign.  Nor does it reflect my track record as a legislator.  In the last three months alone, I passed and sent to Illinois governor's desk 25 pieces of major progressive legislation, including groundbreaking laws mandating the videotaping of all interrogations and confessions in capital cases; racial profiling legislation; a new law designed to ease the burden on ex-offenders seeking employment; and a state earned income tax credit that will put millions of dollars directly into the pockets of Illinois' working poor.

As Bruce may tell you, I've always preached the need for elected officials and candidates to be held accountable for their views.  I don't exempt myself from that rule.  I'd simply ask that folks take the time to find out what my views are before they start questioning my passion for justice or the integrity of my campaign effort.  I'm not hard to reach.

In the meantime, I'll talk to my staff about sprucing up the website!

Sincerely,

State Senator Barack Obama

Candidate for U.S. Senate

The June 22, 2003 Wayback Machine shows the speech on the site, and the entire news section does look spruced up and more readable, so it looks as if Bruce's article compelled Obama to return the speech to his site. All told, it may have been down for a month.

So where does that leave us? Does this incident make Obama's portrayal of his Iraq position "a fairy tale" as Bill Clinton would have us believe? Is Obama's commitment to progressive causes suspect and his passion evaporated, as Bruce Dixon would have us ask? Was he watering down his criticism of the Bush administration or was the speech removed, as Obama claims, because it was judged to be dated once the formal phase of the war was over and because of his staff's desire to continually provide fresh news clips?

Here's my take.

I think the comparison of Obama vs. H. Clinton on the war is still very valid, regardless of this temporary website speech absence. At a time when most politicians fell in line with Bush's warmongering, she seemed to go out of her way to exaggerate the claims against Saddam, while I do think it took courage and conviction for Obama to deliver the October 2002 speech calling this a dumb war. I also take him at his word that he continued to speak out about the war and the Bush administration attacks on the Constitution. I don't have a way of going back, finding and listening to those speeches, so I'm choosing to believe his claims here because he seems pretty consistent at speaking his mind (to black audiences about homophobia in the community or auto manufacturers about efficiency standards or Wall Street execs about tax and economic regulatory policy - please stop telling me this brotha has no substance. just stop it).

It's possible that Obama or his campaign removed the speech because of it's age. If you look at that news page, you'll see it's the next to the last item and so might be a candidate for falling off the rotation as new items were added. He had made his point with the speech. It was on his site from October - May (7 months). If he were running away from the speech, why keep it on the site even that long?

It's also possible that Obama or his campaign got nervous for some reason or pressured by DLC-ish forces. I don't know. I can't know. But I doubt it. You should draw your own conclusions, and considering the smart and resourceful folks we have at this blog, I'm eager to see what you think.

I've tried to address the specifics of this Clinton charge fairly and incorporated new information brought to my attention (thanks Bruce, seriously). Bruce and the folks over at BAG pride themselves on holding black leadership accountable. Just look at their no-holds-barred CBC Monitor. I respect their tenacity. Someone should do it, and they do it in a way that is grounded in information (and yeah, some speculation), but generally lacking in the unfounded, ugly and assinine charges coming out of the Clinton campaign (today's word is: plagiarism!). We should hold all politicians accountable with such ferocity.

I also think we should take note of some important things about Obama. He responded to the pressure. He wrote back to the publication that essentially called him a (near)-sellout. He addressed all the charges (whether you believe him is up to you, but he did answer the questions). I believe he did so honestly just as he did with me when I asked him about his questionable support for "clean coal." He "spruced up" his website and also restored the speech.

For me, this situation offers a chance to highlight my strongest reason for supporting Obama over any other candidate: civic participation and accountability. We can predict with 100 percent certainty that he will not be right 100 percent of the time. What is different about his campaign and his plans is that he offers up an unprecedented level of access to the wheels of government (chief technology officer, transcripts and videos of department meetings, access to updated searchable government data, a public commenting period on legislation and more) that no one else has offered. Actually Edwards was good but still not as comprehensive. Compare Obama's plan to Hillary's plan for government reform. Compare his plan for technology and media reform vs. hers. There is no comparison. He is leagues ahead of her. He doesn't just talk about accountability and participation, he offers the tools of accountability to the people. This is a significant difference between them. These tools lack ideology. They can be used in support of his positions or in opposition.

So while I feel a responsibility to update my previous post about the speech on the website, that's less important to me than a) the clear contrast between Obama and Clinton's initial reaction to the war and b) the larger issue of truly distributing a bit more power to the people. I look forward to seeing these tools employed by Black Agenda Report, Jack & Jill Politics and maybe even a mainstream media outlet or concerned citizen. I hope all of us who criticize or attempt to hold Obama accountable realize that if he becomes president, such criticism will be amplified and made more effective by his own policies.

Thanks for reading. Now it's your turn. Comment away!