Not long before his untimely (but not universally mourned) death last week, the right-wing political blogger/activist/sting artist Andrew Breitbart dropped a bomb. Or seemed to. He told a heavily salivating crowd of conservative activists that he'd gotten hold of a video of Barack Obama from his college days. It would show Obama for what he truly is, a lefty radical "launched from the salon of [Weather Underground domestic terrorists] Bill and Bernadine Dohrn," and make clear "why racial division and class warfare are central to what hope and change was sold in 2008." Whatever the hell he was talking about, it sounded explosive.
Well, the full tape aired last night on Sean Hannity's show, and boy, is it lame! The 1991 video shows Obama, then president of the Harvard Law Review, speaking at a rally for racial equality led by professor Derrick Bell. Bell, described on Hannity's show as the "Jeremiah Wright of academia," was upset over Harvard's failure to hire more minorities. Obama introduces him with the words, "Open your hearts and open your minds to the words of professor Derrick Bell." Then he hugs Bell. (No sign or mention of Bill or Bernadine Dohrn, by the way.)
This is evidence, editor-in-chief of Breitbart.com Joel Pollak and contributor Ben Shapiro tell Hannity, that "President Obama always gravitates towards the most radical people." Bell, who died last year, was the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard Law School and is known as the originator of something called Critical Race Theory, which looks at how race and power figure in the application of the law. He thought racial discrimination was real. He wanted more diversity on law school faculties. By conservative lights, this is radical stuff.
What is a little sketchy is a second video unearthed by Breitbart featuring another Harvard University Law School professor, Charles Ogletree, who, referring to the Obama-Bell man hug footage, tells an audience, "We hid this during the 2008 campaign. I don't care if they find it now." It's not clear how serious Ogletree is; he's laughing as he says this. But, yeah, it doesn't look great. He apparently thought the tape could have hurt Obama in 08.
A few things to say about all this. For one thing, Critical Race Theory isn't all that radical. Anyone who thinks power and race don't figure in how the law is applied or that racism is a thing of the past is not paying attention. Second, the evidence of Obama's supposed radicalism amounts to his association with Jeremiah Wright and, now, his respect and affection for Bell. Against this we can place Obama's long record of moderation, from his time at the Harvard Law Review, where he was known for his willingness to give conservative views a respectful hearing, right up to the dogged (and for many, naive) bipartisanship of his term in the White House, so infuriating to liberals. As to whether this tape would have hurt him in 2008 – and the fact that Ogletree thought so, if he did, doesn't make it so – that would depend on how many people bought into the absurd and paranoid right-wing fantasy that Obama is some kind of Black Power radical. This is an article of faith among movement conservatives, right up with Obama's being a Muslim; I get that. But if the Jeremiah Wright flap didn't sink Obama, why would this, even more innocuous, "revelation" have done him in? Most people would have seen this "bombshell" for what it is, a total dud.