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What's up with Sean Wilentz?

Posted by Christopher Shea  August 28, 2008 01:38 PM

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Sean Wilentz, the Princeton history professor and self-described lifelong Democrat, has been one of Barack Obama's most ferocious critics over the past few months. He was, to be sure, a supporter of Hillary Clinton -- but, unlike Sen. Clinton herself (at least now that she's accepted defeat), he seems to have no qualms about undermining the man who's trying to win back the White House for the party Wilentz supports.

Historian Sean Wilentz: Obama's bete noir

This has been going on for a while. Many eyebrows were raised after Wilentz's onslaught against Obama in the February 27, 2008 New Republic [no link because TNR's archives are a disaster][UPDATE: Here it is, courtesy of a TNR staffer], in which he made the following remarkable claim: Obama was guilty of "the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988 and the most insidious since Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, praising states' rights." Not only, for example, was race the furthest thing from President Clinton's mind when he compared Obama's primary victory in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson's victories in the state in 1984 and '88 (which many people heard as an assertion that Obama polled strongly only among blacks) -- Obama's campaign, Wilentz argued, was guilty of noxious race-baiting for daring to suggest such a motive.

Now, in what's supposed to be Obama's week of triumph, Newsweek has given the professor 2,800 words in which to offer disingenuous-sounding advice to the nominee, as well as to his intellectual supporters. Obama needs this advice, Wilentz says, because "millions" of Democrats "find his appeals wispy and unconvincing."

First, argues the professor, Obama needs to stop with all the talk about breaking with Washington and transcending partisan politics. It's all too Carter-esque: "Obama resembles Jimmy Carter more than he does any other Democratic president in living memory." Obama also must make it a priority to reconcile the "contradictory" aspects of his candidacy: "During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate -- yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility."

On foreign policy, Obama should develop a McCain-like backbone: Obama's appeal to Russia and Georgia to enter talks in good faith, Wilentz writes, "sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking."

How can intellectuals help the Obama cause? By doing what Wilentz has been doing: Criticizing the nominee. "Liberal intellectuals actually could have aided their candidate, while also doing their professional duty, by pressing him on his patently evasive accounts about various matters, such as his connections with the convicted wheeler-dealer Tony Rezko, or his more-than-informal ties to the unrepentant terrorist William Ayers …"

Observes Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly: "Um, sure. That would have been a great way to help out Obama." Robert Lemieux of Lawyers, Guns and Money offers this verdict of the Newsweek piece: "a monument to bad faith."

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1 comments so far...
  1. When I come across a fellow Democrat ranting and raving about Obama, I immediately suspect racism. I'm white. Obama wasn't my first choice of candidates though I'm willing to support him now-- despite his indefensible position on the FISA bill. But I'm struck by the level of vitriol some of my "kindred spirit" spew at our candidate. And the irrational (Maddow would say, post-rational) view from groups such as PUMA who vow to vote for McCain. I'm not afraid to say it: This is racism. I'm white and grew up in the north, and I recognize it when I see it. Wilentz, Krugman, Ferraro-- I find you all guilty. I've heard the racist jokes my whole life from supposedly enlightened souls; I've heard the "n" word plenty from good people who park their phony butts in church on Sunday; I'm friends with a woman who sees nothing wrong with putting a statue of a black jockey in her yard. She puts it in the backyard, which is surrounded by a privacy fence. But it's there just the same. Shame on her and all the people I know or just know of who practice this insidious, odious, pernicious, cowardly hatred. Shame on you.

    Posted by Jacksonian August 31, 08 09:14 AM
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