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Joan Vennochi

Sister Souljah moments

BILL CLINTON invented the Sister Souljah moment. Is having one still a political requirement or more a political cliche?

Back in 1992, Clinton made headlines when he chastised rap artist and community activist Sister Souljah for saying, "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" His rebuke came in an appearance before Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition: "If you took the words, 'white' and 'black' and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech," the then-presidential candidate said.

This so-called "Sister Souljah moment" - a calculated denunciation of an extremist position or special interest group - wrapped Clinton in a warm centrist glow just in time for the general election.

Now, Republicans are pushing Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, to repudiate the "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" ad unveiled by MoveOn.org, which represents the antiwar left.

In a scathing statement about Clinton's failure to reject the ad, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said, "If you're not tough enough to repudiate a scurrilous, outrageous attack such as that, then I don't know how you're tough enough to be president of the United States." Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani took out his own New York Times ad to denounce Clinton for refusing to denounce the ad. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney piled on, telling an MSNBC interviewer that MoveOn.org "has purchased the Democratic Party."

The MoveOn.org ad was nasty and juvenile, putting Democrats at a disadvantage as Petraeus made his case for a continued American presence in Iraq. But Democrats did not see a Sister Souljah moment. They fear the power of the anti-war left and they also understand the political limitations of such formulaic outrage. A Sister Souljah moment must come at the right time. And a candidate can only have so many of them.

Last month, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois told the National Education Association that performance-based merit pay should be considered in public schools. On a recent visit to Detroit, he criticized the auto industry for failing to improve fuel efficiency.

Hillary Clinton had an early Sister Souljah moment back in January 2005 when she told a prochoice audience that "opposing sides" on the abortion question should "seek common ground."

But on war, the senator from New York can't afford another one - not now. John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, embraces antiwar activists. Clinton is trying to live down her vote to authorize President Bush to go to war and her refusal to apologize for it. Meanwhile, the public's overwhelming disdain for Bush cushions Republican efforts to drum up outrage over General "Betray Us."

When it comes to offending the primary base, candidates can only go so far. In the 2000 campaign for the Republican nomination, McCain stated, "Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right. " The right never forgave him for that, nor for his pro-immigration stand in the current race. Meanwhile, Romney is so fearful of the right, he repudiated his previous prochoice position. What a Sister Souljah moment it would be if Romney repudiated his repudiation.

The original Sister Souljah moment came in June 1992, after Democratic primary voters settled on Bill Clinton as their candidate to challenge incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Clinton refers to it in his book, "My Life," noting that it occurred when third party candidate Ross Perot was getting all the attention. "Our campaign had to regain momentum," he wrote. He seized the moment when he spoke before the Rainbow Coalition, the day after Sister Souljah addressed the same group. "My staff, especially Paul Begala, argued that I had to say something about her remarks," Clinton recalled, although he went on to dispute the suggestion that this was "a calculated attempt to appeal to moderate and conservative swing voters by standing up to a Democratic core constituency." But in his book, he agreed that this and other "public outreach" during that month improved his standing in the polls.

Sister Souljah's (born Lisa Williamson) website describes her as an author, activist, recording artist, and film producer. She does not mention her brush with presidential politics. As a performer, she must know it for what it was - theater.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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