Obama Campaign Ad Controversy, 2000: 'This Guy Says One Thing About You in Your Presence, and Then...'

All week, Democrats have been disagreeing publicly with President Barack Obama’s attacks on Bain Capital, with Newark Mayor Cory Booker describing the ad campaign as “nauseating.” It is not the first time that Democrats have attacked Obama for running dishonest campaign ads. Breitbart News has unearthed a long-overlooked report of an off-air argument between Obama and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) during a break in a debate on a Chicago radio station during Obama’s ill-fated primary challenge in 2000.

Curtis Lawrence, reporting at the time for the Chicago Sun-Times, covered the debate between then-state Senator Obama, Rush, and State Senator Donne E. Trotter, held on WVON-AM 1690 on Feb. 18, 2000. Lawrence described the exchanges as polite, and that the three candidates “agreed most of the time” on the issues. “But during breaks--which included an Obama commercial accusing Rush of being insensitive to seniors' concerns about prescription drugs--the tension rose,” Lawrence reported on Feb. 20.

As Lawrence had noted in an earlier, Feb. 19 report on the radio debate, the Obama attack ad set off a fierce fight, and the candidates went from “behaving like perfect gentlemen on the airwaves” to “letting the venom fly when the microphones were off.”

We know what that commercial probably sounded like, thanks to Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed, who unearthed Obama’s radio ads from that campaign, including this one:

Woman: ...And I suppose you’re voting for Bobby Rush again?

Man: I guess so. Didn’t you vote for Rush last time?

Woman: Not this time. Rush gets on TV a lot, but I can’t think of anything important he’s done in Washington. I just found out that Rush has the worst attendance record of any Illinois congressman. He missed over three hundred votes!

Man: Bad news! So who’re you for?

Woman: State Senator Barack Obama. I’ve seen him speak a couple of times, and he’s really got a lot on the ball. Civil rights attorney. Law professor! Obama’s got specific plans to cut prescription drug prices and to stop racial profiling. And Obama can help bring jobs back to the South Side...

Rush felt ambushed by the attack, which aired as the three candidates sat in studio, and confronted Obama directly, challenging the accuracy of the ad--and Obama’s credibility:

"I've been untruthfully attacked in radio commercials by my opponents," Rush said. After the program, he produced a copy of a May 1999 congressional report he had commissioned on the high cost of prescription drugs for seniors.

Rush also accused Obama of unfairly portraying him as being inaccessible.

"I don't think that it is a distortion of the record for me to say that generally constituents don't have much access or ideas of what the congressman is doing," Obama said.

"Maybe you haven't been around the 1st Congressional District long enough to really see what's going on," Rush retorted.

"One of the things that really galls me about this guy," Rush said, "is that he says one thing about you in your presence and then. . . ."

The break was over and it was time for more polite discourse.

But Rush was glad to finish his thoughts on Obama after the program.

"It's a lie, a fabrication," Rush said of Obama's commercial. "It's the worst form of campaign advertising I've been privy to."

Rush’s outburst was largely ignored by the rest of the media, but Lawrence’s report was circulated by an African-American listserv, whose members were following the race. 

The negative tone of the Obama re-election effort in 2012 is not unprecedented, nor is the controversy. As Slate’s Dave Weigel noted May 22, the idea that Barack Obama ran a positive campaign in 2008--which Republicans have recently bought into--is a myth: 

The myth that Obama ran a Different Kind of Campaign is based on a few bold bets--like rejecting an early summer gas tax holiday--that paid off. But we're also talking about a campaign that completely fabricated an anti-NAFTA position, and a campaign that tipped off Ben Smith to the haircut that destroyed John Edwards.* We're talking about a campaign that outspent John McCain by as much as a 3-1 ratio in the final stretch, and devoted most of that money to negative ads. The "hope and change" campaign was the happy cover on a dogged, overwhelming attack campaign. It used to benefit Democrats to obscure this; now, it benefits Republicans.

*In every way. It was the ugly haircut story that inspired Rachel "Bunny" Mellon to start cutting checks to help out her friend with big expenses.

Viewed in the context of Obama’s career, unity, hope and change are the exception. Bringing a gun to a knife-fight, in Obama’s words, may be a more apt metaphor.


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