Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s fiery political remark Monday that the Republican House is like a “plantation” has triggered charges of playing the race card and a sharp rebuke from first lady Laura Bush, who called her comment ridiculous.

The New York Democrat’s racial broadside during a Martin Luther King Day appearance at a Baptist church in Harlem continued to spark debate yesterday on both sides of the political aisle.

Black Democratic leaders such as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois defended and attempted to explain Mrs. Clinton’s remarks, saying she was referring to a “further consolidation of power” by Republicans in Washington. But Mrs. Bush, en route home from a trip to West Africa, said, “I think it’s ridiculous — it’s a ridiculous comment.”

Speaking at a civil rights forum celebrating King’s legacy, Mrs. Clinton attempted to score some political points with the party’s loyal black constituency, charging that the Republican-controlled House was “run like a plantation.”

“And you know what I am talking about,” she said.

Until now, Mrs. Clinton has largely avoided political controversy, trying to position herself as a centrist Democrat in anticipation of a potential run for president in 2008. But her sharply worded attack on Republicans and the White House before a predominantly black audience has made her the target of a political firestorm.

Earlier this week, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said her attack was “out of bounds” and “way out of line,” adding that “the political season may be starting early.”

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s response was even sharper.

“If she’s trying to be racist, I think that’s unfortunate,” the Illinois Republican said.

A Republican National Committee official accused Mrs. Clinton of being “racially divisive,” and several House Republicans unleashed some of the sharpest attacks against the former first lady since she was elected senator in 2000.

“It’s always wrong to play the race card for political gain by using a loaded word like ‘plantation,’” Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, told the New York Daily News.

Despite the uproar, Mrs. Clinton said she did not regret her choice of words.

“Congress is run in a top-down way. There is no meaningful debate on important issues facing America,” she said. House Republicans have made “some really bad decisions for America.”

If Mrs. Clinton’s plantation speech was meant to strengthen her ties to her party’s loyal black constituency, it apparently had the desired effect among black liberals who were not happy with her vote for the Iraq war resolution and other centrist-leaning positions.

“Is this the real her, the real Hillary? I don’t know. But if it is, I like it,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who hosted Monday’s forum.

“Before anyone accuses Senator Clinton of playing the race card, they should check out her record,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said yesterday.

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