Why We're Talking About Barack Obama and Derrick Bell Now

So Andrew Breitbart's belated death-rattle made its debut last night, and here's what it is: Barack Obama, in 1990, gave a speech saying nice things about a bad man named Derrick Bell. He also hugged the bad man, Derrick Bell. Ipso facto reduction ad absurdum habeas corpus hocus pocus, Barack Obama is a bad man as well. Airtight.

Bell was a former Justice Department attorney—a Justice Department attorney during the administration of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower—and Harvard Law professor who was a proponent of critical race theory, a rather diffuse body of ideas about the American legal and political system concentrating on the fact that it was created by white people for the enrichment of white people. That's what makes him bad. The fact that a 29-year-old Barack Obama once praised him in public, and actually touched him, blackly, obviously means that Barack Obama wholly and unreservedly endorses critical race theory and is surreptitiously devoting his administration to instituting its ideas across the federal government.

And Breitbart posthumously busted the whole thing wide open: "The bombshell was the revelation of the relationship between Barack Obama and Derrick Bell," Breitbart.com editor Joshua Joel Pollak told CNN's Soledad O'Brien this morning. There are some problems with that claim.

Firstly, the video that Breitbart.com published wasn't video of Obama's 1990 speech. It was a partial video of a recent presentation by Harvard professor Charles Ogletree at which the video was shown, on a screen. In other words, it was video of a video of the speech. Yesterday afternoon, while Breitbart's minions were busy hyping the impending "revelation" of the tape, Buzzfeed mischievously tracked down the actual first-generation video of the speech from WGBH, the Boston public station that originally covered the rally at which Obama delivered the speech back in 1990. Buzzfeed reveled in double-scooping Breitbart by delivering a better copy of the offending video first for about ten minutes before it emerged that the same footage had been featured in a 2008 Frontline episode profiling Obama and McCain. And had been available, for free, on its web site ever since.

So: The thing that was being revealed had been, in fact, revealed for years, which is slightly embarrassing. But not fatal to the Breitbartian project, which has always been more about baiting and attacking media institutions than about discerning actual facts. So the scoop—or lack thereof—itself isn't as important as demonstrating that the media ignored the Derrick Bell connection back in 2008. It was there in plain sight, but nobody did anything. "This election, we're going to vet him," Breitbart told the CPAC audience not long before his death, "to show that racial division and class warfare were central to what hope and change were sold as in 2008." The implication was that the "mainstream media" failed to appreciate the gravity of the Bell tape when they had the chance.

"Why are we looking at this video in 2012?" asked Amy Holmes on CNN. "Why didn't we see in 2008?" The fact that Holmes actually did see it in 2008, if she was watching Frontline, is immaterial. It didn't cause a shitstorm in 2008. Why not? Where's my shitstorm?

Who knows. Because Jeremiah Wright was occupying that space? Because people were more reasonable? Because the Tea Party had not yet emerged to rabidly consume every scrap of Obama conspiracy marginalia that was thrown to it? Because Breitbart had not yet finished constructing the poisonous media economy that was his legacy? Whatever the reason, it's not because "the media" ignored Obama's relationship, such as it was, with former Eisenhower prosecutor and Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell:

  • "In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice," Jodei Kantor, New York Times, January 28, 2007:

    Even trickier, Mr. Obama was the most prominent minority student on a campus shaken by racial politics. A group agitating for greater faculty diversity occupied the dean's office and sued the school for discrimination; Derrick Bell, a black law professor, resigned over the issue....

    As the president of the review, Mr. Obama once again walked a delicate line. He served on the board of the Black Law Students Association, often speaking passionately about the tempest of the week, but in a way that white classmates say made them feel reassured rather than defensive. He distanced himself from bombast; he did a mischievous impersonation of the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he came to speak on campus, recalled Franklin Amanat, now a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn. Mr. Obama's boldest moment came at a rally for faculty diversity, where he compared Professor Bell to Rosa Parks.

  • 'Obama, the Postmodernist," Jonah Goldberg, USA Today, August 5, 2009:

    Obama gives every indication of having evolved from this intellectual soup. As a student and, later, a law school instructor, Obama was sympathetic to Critical Race Theory, a wholly owned franchise of postmodernism. At Harvard, Obama revered Derrick Bell, a controversial black law professor who preferred personally defined literary truths over old-fashioned literal truth. Words are power, Bell and Co. argued, and your so-called facts are merely myths of the white power structure.

  • "Hannity & Colmes," Dick Morris, Fox News, January 9, 2007:

    You are going to a see an avalanche of negative stories about Obama. I believe that that Insight magazine story that was inaccurate, that he went to a Muslim school, was indeed planted, as Insight magazine said, by somebody close to the Clinton war room.

    And I think you can see two other lines of attack. The New York Times flagged it yesterday. In Frank Rich's column, he says that Obama said he admires Derrick Bell, who was the professor who resigned over wanting more affirmative action. And it quotes him when he was 28 years old on law review, saying, "I don't care about the suburbs. I'm not interested in the suburbs."

I can't find the Frank Rich column Morris was talking about. But he said it right there on Hannity's show: Obama could be attacked on his Derrick Bell association. Why did Hannity ignore him? What is he hiding?

Photos via the AP.