WASHINGTON — The U.S. secretary of state said last Friday she
apologized to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama after
learning workers in her department improperly snooped through the
Illinois senator’s passport file three times since beginning of the
While expressing anger over the invasion of privacy, the issue stood to be a welcome diversion for the Obama campaign after a week of political battering over remarks by the candidate’s longtime pastor.
That, coupled with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s coveted endorsement, appeared to have, temporarily at least, refocused attention away from the pastor brouhaha.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she spoke with Obama, telling him she was sorry. The secretary said she acknowledged she “would be very disturbed” had it happened to her.
Two State Department contract workers were dismissed for getting into Obama’s file on separate occasions — Jan. 9 and Feb. 21. A third worker was disciplined for accessing the file on March 14.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the State Department inspector general’s office was looking into the matter, but Justice Department officials had been notified in case they need to get involved.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton called the incident “an outrageous breach of security and privacy.”
Perhaps more relevant to Obama’s campaign fortunes, however, was the endorsement by Richardson, a Democratic superdelegate and former presidential candidate, who served as U.N. ambassador and energy secretary under former President Bill Clinton.
Richardson’s backing of Obama, who aspires to become America’s first African American president, stands as a major boost, perhaps most importantly among the governor’s fellow Hispanics — America’s largest ethnic bloc, which has largely backed Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I believe he (Obama) is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime leader that can bring our nation together and restore America’s moral leadership in the world,” Richardson said in a statement. “As a presidential candidate, I know full well Sen. Obama’s unique moral ability to inspire the American people to confront our urgent challenges at home and abroad in a spirit of bipartisanship and reconciliation.”
Whether intentionally timed or not, the Richardson endorsement directed attention away from widely circulated inflammatory snippets of sermons that showed Rev. Jeremiah Wright — the Obama pastor — claiming the United States had brought the Sept. 11 attacks on itself and inveighing God to damn America for racial bigotry.
While condemning the remarks, Obama refused — in a major speech on race last week — to “disown” Wright, who married the candidate and his wife and baptized their children.
The Clinton campaign has, meanwhile, criticized Obama’s organization for “peddling photos” of former President Bill Clinton and Wright shaking hands at a White House prayer breakfast in 1998.
The New York Times posted the photo to its Web site last Thursday and said it was provided by the Obama campaign.
Richardson’s endorsement comes as Obama leads among delegates selected at primaries and caucuses but with national public opinion polling showing Clinton pulling ahead of him in the race for the Democratic nomination amid a controversy over incendiary statements by his former pastor in Chicago.
An endorsement from Richardson, who dropped out of the Democratic race in January, was relentlessly wooed by Obama and Clinton. Bill Clinton even went to Richardson’s New Mexico home to watch America’s premier television sporting event, the Super Bowl, with the governor in February.
As a Democratic superdelegate, Richardson has a key role in the tight race for nominating votes and could bring other superdelegates to Obama’s side. He also has been mentioned as a potential running mate for either candidate.
Obama leads Clinton among delegates whose votes were determined by primaries or caucuses, 1,406 to 1,249. But neither is on track to win enough pledged delegates to clinch the nomination — 2,024 are needed — so the outcome could be decided by superdelegates, who are elected and party officials who can choose whomever they like.
Including Richardson, Clinton leads 250-215 among superdelegates who have announced a choice. About 40 percent of the superdelegates have not declared.
The furor over Wright’s sermons coincided with a marked downturn of support for Obama, according to a recent Gallup poll.
The national poll had him leading Clinton 50 percent to 44 percent in a survey conducted March 11-13, but Clinton has since taken over the lead. Updated polling now shows Clinton ahead of Obama 48 percent to 43 percent, according to voters questioned from March 17-19, at the height of the pastor controversy.
The bruising nomination fight threatens Democratic unity in the historic race to replace President George W. Bush.
Some Democrats fear that a clear shot at victory for the party has been encumbered by the continued need for record-breaking campaign spending and the bickering between the Obama and Clinton camps that has allowed John McCain, the Arizona senator who is the Republican nominee-in-waiting, to largely remain above the fray.