Harvard video used to attack Obama provides no racial 'smoking gun'

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Wait…that was it? The shocking videotape unearthed by the late, right-wing gadfly Andrew Breitbart, the one that was supposed to finally prove that Barack Obama is indeed the crazed race warrior that the right has tried to portray him to be since 2007, has turned out to be neither new, nor newsworthy.

Breitbart was supposedly working on a major exposé on the tape, which shows Obama during his days at Harvard Law School in the early 90s. It leaked early — a suspicious cabal of liberal media elites at Buzzfeed having scooped Fox News’ Sean Hannity by using the clandestine tactics that the Left calls “licensing the video from Boston’s PBS TV station.”

What they found will shock and horrify you — if you are shocked and horrified by pithy compliments delivered before a mixed race crowd at the frightening Saul Alinsky radical training ground of Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Watch Obama Speaks at Harvard Law in ‘90 on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

In the video, Obama is speaking at a campus rally in support of Professor Derrick Bell, the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School and one of just a handful of minorities — and women — with such posts in the early 90s. At the time, a student group called the Coalition for Civil Rights, which was comprised of black, Hispanic, women and gay student organizations, demanded that Harvard diversify its faculty. (Similar protests, sit ins and demands were taking place at the undergraduate college, where the head of the African-American studies department was a white woman. Those protests ultimately led to the hiring of Henry Louis Gates to lead the Afro-American Studies department and for a time brought Professor Cornel West to Harvard, where he battled with then Harvard University president and future adviser to President Barack Obama, Lawrence Summers.)

Bell took a leave of absence and refused to return until the law school tenured a black woman. The protests in the “smoking gun” video, which the Right is certain will take the president down, were in support of Bell’s actions. In the tape, Obama tells a story about Bell addressing first year law students, saying that Bell didn’t accomplish all that he did “because of his good looks and easy charm, though he has both in amble measure.” The mostly white audience laughs. Scandal!

Hannity, in his Wednesday Fox show, ominously informed his audience that “in the next frame, Obama embraces the ‘controversial’ professor, but that part of the tape was ‘covered up’ by Obama’s friend and Bell’s fellow Harvard Law professor, Charles Ogletree, ahead of the 2008 election.”

Hannity claimed that the video was selectively edited and was hidden by the media in order to protect Obama from the kind of scrutiny that conservatives are forced to endure. In fact, PBS’ Frontline aired the video in its entirety, in 2008, as part of a documentary on Obama’s time at Harvard that has been available on YouTube for four years…

Hannity did his best to hype the video, which shows Obama looking and sounding almost exactly the way he does today, though with longer hair — wait, Afros are a sign of being radical, right? — and with his hands stuck in his pockets. He tells the crowd, “open your hearts and your minds to Derrick Bell.” And it is on that phrase, and Bell’s connection to an area of scholarship called “critical race theory,” that the anti-Obama right plans to base its attacks.

Hannity and his guests, two editors from Breitbart’s BigJournalism.com, — who for some reason kept giggling — spent much of the segment smearing Derrick Bell, who died last year and cannot defend himself. They called Bell a “radical,” and the “Jeremiah Wright of academia.” They claimed that there was a “media cover up” of this shocking videotape, which has a sinister demonstration of Obamaian mildness.

In the next segment, Fox commentator Juan Williams disappointed those in the studio by declaring that the tape was nothing new. “I expected more than that,” he said. That might be the understatement of the year.

I spoke to Keith Boykin, a classmate of Obama’s at Harvard Law and a former staffer in the Bill Clinton administration, who was also one of the organizers of the Harvard protests, including the one in the video. Boykin, unlike Obama, — who became the head of the Harvard Law Review in 1991 and who really was considered a campus “radical,” — said that the tape has come up before…

“it’s an old news story,” Boykin said. “I remember when a [network] reporter showed me that video for the first time four years ago. I was there [at the protest] when it happened. There was nothing controversial about it and he didn’t say anything the least bit controversial.”

Boykin talked about the determination of some on the right to unearth a race-based Obama conspiracy. “Remember during the 2008 campaign when there was supposed to be this tape of Michelle Obama saying “whitey?” it didn’t exist. These people are convinced that the Obamas are some closet racists and that there’s some secret videotape to prove it. Last week, Hannity’s producers called me to see if i wanted to come on and talk about the racial divisiveness of there being an African-Americans for Obama committee in the campaign.” Nobody had better tell Sean Hannity that George W. Bush had an African-American vote-drive effort too. A guy named Michael Steele was a part of it…

WATCH Keith Boykin’s “very last word” on Barack Obama during their law school days:

[MSNBCMSN video=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640″ w=”592″ h=”346″ launch_id=”46663051″ id=”msnbc2225e7″]

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Boykin said that Obama didn’t participate in most of the campus protests or in the Coalition for Civil Rights lawsuit against Harvard Law. But on key occasions, such as that day in 1991, Obama, who was something of a campus celebrity because of this status as the first African-American to head the Law Review, lent his presence and support to the group and to Bell, which helped bring critical attention to the efforts, for which Boykin praised him.

And Boykin denied that the protests were some demonstration of black nationalism. “They centered around Professor Derrick Bell and a student led movement for diversity. It wasn’t even a black thing. It was a coalition of black groups, the Latino group, women, gay groups… Most of the people at our events were white!”

As for the attempts by Hannity and his cohorts to tar the reputation of the late Professor Bell, Boykin said: “I spoke at Professor Bell’s funeral at the Riverside church in Harlem last year. It was an ecumenical gathering of people of all races. He was nothing like that.”

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport