That dubious Clinton quote

THAT DUBIOUS CLINTON QUOTE…. Plenty of tidbits from “Game Change” have been raising eyebrows in the political world over the last few days, but there’s one anecdote in particular that may be generating more controversy than it deserves. It’s from page 218, and it describes Ted Kennedy’s frustration with Bill Clinton in early 2008.

The day after Iowa, he phoned Kennedy and pressed for an endorsement, making the case for his wife. But Bill then went on, belittling Obama in a manner that deeply offended Kennedy. Recounting the conversation later to a friend, Teddy fumed that Clinton had said, A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.

At face value, the anecdote seems odd. Why would the former president, of all people, try to persuade Ted Kennedy, of all people, to dismiss Barack Obama with racially-charged criticism?

Given all the media attention this anecdote received, it’s worth emphasizing that there’s ample reason for skepticism. Greg Sargent noted that the remarks attributed to Clinton aren’t actually in quotes: “By the authors’ own stated guidelines, this might not have been the ‘precise wording’ Clinton used. Yet it has been the basis for a huge amount of media discussion all the same, with some suggesting racism on Clinton’s part.”

I have a four-word rule that tends to work pretty well: beware of blind paraphrases. In this case, Clinton very likely took a dismissive attitude towards Obama when reaching out to Kennedy. But in terms of what, precisely, was said, we have Clinton saying something to Kennedy, and Kennedy later saying something to a friend, and that friend later saying something to the authors of a book looking for juicy tidbits.

Not exactly rock solid.

And yet, the anecdote was not only all over the media yesterday, major news outlets took the liberty of adding quote marks to text that didn’t originally have them. As Terry Krepel noted, a wide variety of outlets ranging from the irresponsible (Fox News) to the professional (LA Times) ran the story attributing the exact words to Clinton that he may not have ever uttered.

There seem to be some interesting revelations in “Game Change.” This probably isn’t one of them.