You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Poison Penn

Since I'm already reopening old wounds from the Democratic primary, I might as well reopen another. In December of 2007, Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, went on television and seemed to go out of his way to use the word "cocaine" as often as possible. Some Obama supporters objected to the tactic. This objection, in turn, became one of the Clinton defenders' favorite examples of the baseless suspicions to which her campaign was being subjected. Sean Wilentz, whose judgment on matters unrelated to Clinton and Obama I value greatly, thundered:

After being questioned for ten minutes about the drug allegation on cable television--and repeatedly denying that the national campaign had anything to do with it--Clinton campaign pollster Mark Penn mentioned the word "cocaine" (which was difficult to avoid in the context of the repeated questioning about drugs). "I think we've made clear that the issue related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising, and I think that's been made clear," he said. Obama's campaign aides (as well as John Edwards's) immediately leapt on Penn and chastised him as an inflammatory demagogue for using the word that Obama himself referred to in his memoir as "blow." Since then, Obama's strategists and supporters in the press have whipped the story into a full racialist subtext, as if Shaheen and Penn were the executors of a well-plotted Clinton master plan to turn Obama into a stereotypical black street hoodlum--or, in the words of the fervently pro-Obama and anti-Clinton columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times, "ghettoized as a cocaine user."

And now history's verdict is in. Here's page 163 of Game Change:

That night on MSNBC’s Hardball, Penn appeared in a segment from the debate hall spin room with Trippi and with Axelrod via remote. Chris Matthews asked about the Clinton team’s turn toward negativity, and Penn replied, ‘The issue related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising.’

‘He just did it again! He just did it again! Unbelievable!’ Trippi interrupted indignantly, pointing at Penn. ‘He just said ‘cocaine’ again!’

‘I think you’re saying ‘cocaine.’’ Penn chuckled. ‘I think you’re saying it.’

Axelrod shook his head mournfully at the sleaziness on display. Trippi fulminated further. And Penn returned to Clinton’s Des Moines headquarters giddy as a schoolgirl, giggling to his colleagues, ‘Did you notice how many times I said ‘cocaine’?’