McCain to Attack Obama for Public Radio Comments From 2001

Oct 27, 2008 10:16am

On Jan. 18, 2001, then-state senator Barack Obama appeared on a public radio chat show to discuss "The Courts and Civil Rights."

You can listen to the whole show HERE.

In that show — WBEZ-FM’s "Odyssey" — Obama discussed the role of the courts in civil rights.

Today, aides say, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will seize on some of those remarks, as hyped by Mr. Drudge.

Obama in that interview said, "If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement, and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples, so that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and order, and as long as I could pay for it, I’d be OK."

"But," Obama said, "The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society.  And to that extent, as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical.  It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, as least as it’s been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted in the same way that, generally, the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted."

Obama added, "one of the, I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement, was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways, we still stuffer from that."

A caller, "Karen," asked if it’s "too late for that kind of reparative work economically?”  And she asked if that work should be done through the courts or through legislation.

"Maybe I’m showing my bias here as a legislator as well as a law professor," Obama said. "I’m not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. The institution just isn’t structured that way."

Presumably, McCain will go after Obama in ways some on the conservative blogosphere are today, accusing Obama of calling it a "tragedy" for not venturing into "the issues of redistribution of wealth" — though Obama’s campaign says that’s a twisting of his words.

"In this interview back in 2001, Obama was talking about the civil rights movement — and the kind of work that has to be done on the ground to make sure that everyone can live out the promise of equality," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said. "Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with Obama’s economic plan or his plan to give the middle class a tax cut. It’s just another distraction from an increasingly desperate McCain campaign."

Burton continued: "In the interview, Obama went into extensive detail to explain why the courts should not get into that business of ‘redistributing’ wealth. Obama’s point — and what he called a tragedy — was that legal victories in the civil rights led too many people to rely on the courts to change society for the better. That view is shared by conservative judges and legal scholars across the country.

"As Obama has said before and written about, he believes that change comes from the bottom up — not from the corridors of Washington," Burton said. "He worked in struggling communities to improve the economic situation of people on the South Side of Chicago, who lost their jobs when the steel plants closed. And he’s worked as a legislator to provide tax relief and health care to middle-class families. And so, Obama’s point was simply that if we want to improve economic conditions for people in this country, we should do so by bringing people together at the community level and getting everyone involved in our democratic process."

- jpt

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