Limbaugh smears Obama with misrepresentation of comments on Constitution

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Rush Limbaugh distorted comments by Sen. Barack Obama in a 2001 radio interview and falsely characterized Obama as "an anti-constitutional professor" who has "flatly rejected" the U.S. Constitution. Obama made the comments in a panel discussion of how the Founders addressed the issue of slavery in the Constitution; he did not reject it, as Limbaugh falsely claimed, but called it "a remarkable political document."

Distorting comments by Sen. Barack Obama from a 2001 radio interview, nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh falsely characterized Obama as "an anti-constitutional professor" who has "flatly rejected" the U.S. Constitution. Obama made the comments in a panel discussion of how the Founders addressed the issue of slavery in the Constitution; he did not reject it, as Limbaugh falsely claimed, but called it "a remarkable political document."

During his October 27 broadcast, Limbaugh said: "Obama, ladies and gentlemen, calls himself a constitutional professor or a constitutional scholar. In truth, Barack Obama was an anti-constitutional professor. He studied the Constitution, and he flatly rejected it. He doesn't like the Constitution, he thinks it is flawed, and now I understand why he was so reluctant to wear the American flag lapel pin. Why would he?" Limbaugh later added, "I don't see how he can take the oath of office" because "[h]e has rejected the Constitution."

Limbaugh's assertion that Obama "rejected the Constitution" is false, as is clear from a clip from a September 6, 2001, interview on Chicago public radio station WBEZ that Limbaugh aired later in the show. In fact, while saying that the Constitution "reflected the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day," Obama asserted that the Constitution is "a remarkable political document that paved the way for where we are now."

In a preceding portion of the WBEZ program -- titled "Slavery and the Constitution" -- Obama explained that the "fundamental flaw" was that "[t]he Africans at the time were not considered as part of the polity that was of concern to the framers," and that the framers did not "see[] it as a moral problem involving persons of moral worth." Without airing that part of the WBEZ program, in which Obama explained his position that the Constitution reflected the "fundamental flaw of this country," Limbaugh criticized Obama for saying that the Constitution reflected a "fundamental flaw," while falsely accusing Obama of saying the flaw cannot "be fixed": "How is he going to -- I asked this earlier -- how is he gonna place his hand on the Bible and swear that he, Barack Hussein Obama, will uphold the Constitution that he feels reflects the nation's fundamental flaw. Fundamental. When he talks about a fundamental flaw, he's not talking about a flaw that can be fixed. Fundamental means that this document is, from the get-go, wrong."

But Obama's identification of a fundamental flaw reflected in the Constitution and "continu[ing] to this day" is hardly unique; several influential Republicans, including President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have articulated a similar view:

  • At a July 19 event at the Council on Foreign Relations, Rice said: "In our first Constitution, my ancestors were three-fifths of a man. What does that say about American democracy at its outset? I've said it's a great birth defect. And we have had to overcome a birth defect. And, like any birth defect, it continues to have an impact on us. It's why we have such a hard time talking about race, and dealing with race."
  • During a July 10, 2003, interview on CNN's Larry King Live, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "It took us a while to recognize that we could not live our Constitution truly unless we eliminated slavery, and hundreds of thousands of young men fought a civil war to end slavery and then it took us a long time to get rid of the vestiges of slavery and we're still working on it to this very day."
  • In July 8, 2003, remarks made at Goree Island in Senegal, Bush said that the "moral vision" of abolitionists "caused Americans to examine our hearts, to correct our Constitution, and to teach our children the dignity and equality of every person of every race." He added: "The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times."

Additionally, in an August 5, 2006, interview with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, Chief Justice John Roberts said of the authors of the Constitution: "They never worked out what to do about slavery and just kind of shuttled that aside and decided we're not going to talk about that. And that taint in the Constitution, took a Civil War to remove." Later in the interview, he said that the Constitution's amendment process "did allow some fundamental flaws to be addressed like slavery -- abolished in the Thirteenth Amendment."

Limbaugh also falsely asserted that during a separate 2001 interview Obama did with WBEZ, Obama said that "if he can come up for a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts, he would do it." Obama actually said that while he could likely develop a legal theory for making economic changes through the courts, he did not think it would work "as a practical matter."

Limbaugh aired an audio clip from the January 18, 2001, interview on WBEZ in which Obama asserted, "You know, the court's just not very good at it, and politically, it's just -- it's very hard to legitimize opinions from the court in that regard. So, I mean, I think that, although, you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally -- you know, I think you can, any three of us sitting here could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts." Limbaugh then added, "Right, redistribution. This is how he views the Supreme Court. This is -- he will have the power to populate it with people who believe in these very things." But Limbaugh clipped Obama's comments; Obama actually said: "I think you can, any three of us sitting here could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts -- I think that, as a practical matter, our institutions just are poorly equipped to do it" [emphasis added]. Indeed, earlier in the interview, Obama stated: "You know, maybe I'm showing my bias here as a legislator as well as a law professor, but, you know, I'm not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. You know, the institution just isn't structured that way."

From the October 27 broadcast of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:

LIMBAUGH: Obama, ladies and gentlemen, calls himself a constitutional professor or a constitutional scholar. In truth, Barack Obama was an anti-constitutional professor. He studied the Constitution, and he flatly rejected it. He doesn't like the Constitution, he thinks it is flawed, and now I understand why he was so reluctant to wear the American flag lapel pin. Why would he? He says "and, to that extent, as radical as, I think, people try to characterize the Warren court, it wasn't that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as it's been interpreted. The Warren court interpreted it in the same way that, generally, the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties -- it says what the states can't do to you, it says what the federal government can't do to you. But it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf." Good Lord, ladies and gentlemen. I don't see how he can take the oath of office, which is this: "I do solemnly swear or affirm that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and I will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." He has rejected the Constitution.

[...]

LIMBAUGH: Here's more Obama. He has to add that if he can come up for a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts, he would do it.

OBAMA [audio clip]: You know, the court's just not very good at it, and politically, it's just -- it's very hard to legitimize opinions from the court in that regard. So, I mean, I think that although you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally -- you know, I think you can, any three of us sitting here could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts --

LIMBAUGH: Right, redistribution. This is how he views the Supreme Court. This is -- he will have the power to populate it with people who believe in these very things. How is he going to -- I asked this earlier -- how is he gonna place his hand on the Bible and swear that he, Barack Hussein Obama, will uphold the Constitution that he feels reflects the nation's fundamental flaw. Fundamental. When he talks about a fundamental flaw, he's not talking about a flaw that can be fixed. Fundamental means that this document is, from the get-go, wrong.

OBAMA [audio clip]: I think we can say that the Constitution reflected a enormous blind spot in this culture that carries on until this day, and that the framers had that same blind spot. I don't think the two views are contradictory to say that it was a remarkable political document that paved the way for where we are now, and to say that it also reflected the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day.

LIMBAUGH: That's not even true. Even if you refuse to call it a fundamental flaw -- just remove the word fundamental -- he is saying, seven years ago, this country has made no progress whatsoever on the official status of black citizens going back to the days of the founding. That simply is not true. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died. The Constitution was a document set up to fix itself, to allow itself to be repaired in the area of individual liberty, and it has been far more than anybody would have ever dreamed back in the days of the founding.

From the September 6, 2001, broadcast of Chicago Public Radio's Odyssey:

HOST: Barack Obama, what are your thoughts on the Declaration and Constitution?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think it's a remarkable document. I think --

HOST: Which one?

OBAMA: The original Constitution, as well as -- as well as the Civil War amendments, but I think it is an imperfect document, and I think it is a document that reflects some deep flaws in American culture -- the colonial culture nascent at that time. African-Americans were not -- first of all, they weren't African-Americans. The Africans at the time were not considered as part of the polity that was of concern to the framers. I think that, as [program co-panelist] Richard [John] said, it was a nagging problem in the same way that, these days, we might think of environmental issues or some other problem that, where you have to balance, you know, cost-benefits, as opposed to seeing it as a moral problem involving persons of moral worth. And, in that sense, I think we can say that the Constitution reflected a enormous blind spot in this culture that carries on until this day, and that the framers had that same blind spot. I don't think the two views are contradictory to say that it was a remarkable political document that paved the way for where we are now, and to say that it also reflected the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day.

Network/Outlet
Premiere Radio Networks
Person
Rush Limbaugh
Show/Publication
The Rush Limbaugh Show
Stories/Interests
Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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