whatever else Bill Clinton has lacked as president, he has never wanted for calumnies: he’s been branded a sex addict, a liar, a creeping socialist on health care, a closet reactionary on welfare.
Through the entire barrage, however, one facet of Clinton’s character has enjoyed nearly uniform admiration. As a child of the Jim Crow South who transcended its dogma of segregation, he is perceived as the ideal healer of America’s continuing racial rift. The ease and camaraderie he displays in the pulpits of black churches is genuine.
Just days ago in Salon, Clinton’s fellow Southerner and former handler James Carville hailed him as “without doubt the wisest and bravest white man I’ve ever known” on matters of race.
Now, more than halfway through a presidency undefined by any single achievement, Clinton seeks to seal his place in history by reconciling the races through honest, engaged dialogue. This campaign for posterity’s favor — orchestrated out of the White House — began with Clinton’s speech at the Shea Stadium ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the major leagues. Noting in his address that “we’ve been trying to catch up ever since,” the president served notice he would be returning to the topic of race frequently.
Sadly, Clinton has shown himself to be just as hypocritical on this issue as on, say, middle-class tax cuts. And the inconsistency owes to the same root cause: the obsession with winning election. That was nowhere more clear than during the 1992 campaign, when Clinton showed he could play the race card with expertise.
It started in the weeks leading up to the New Hampshire primary. Clinton’s campaign was reeling from disclosure of his alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers. Paul Tsongas was providing unexpected competition. Yet in the midst of such pressures, Clinton flew back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a convicted murderer named Ricky Lee Rector.
True, Clinton had always favored capital punishment. And true, Rector had slain two men 11 years earlier. But after shooting them, he had turned the weapon on himself. As political reporter John Wordock of Bloomberg Business News recounted in his masterful study of race, poverty, and the 1992 campaign, “Where The Trail Didn’t Go,” the bungled suicide had doctors scraping bullet fragments from Rector’s brain, leaving him essentially “lobotomized.” One of Rector’s lawyers, Wordock noted, personally informed Clinton of the convict’s condition to try to stave off execution.
Too late. Rector, dispatched by lethal injection, could not be exploited against Clinton’s campaign as the black felon Willie Horton had been against Michael Dukakis by George Bush in 1988. Clinton, the New Democrat, would not let himself look similarly soft on crime.
Clinton’s 1992 campaign was largely guided by Stanley Greenberg’s polls and focus groups of working-class white ethnics in Macomb County, Mich. Those studies revealed that such swing voters saw the Democratic Party as beholden to blacks, and saw blacks, in turn, as the embodiment of social chaos. And Willie Horton had first been turned into a political symbol not by Bush but by the 1988 Democratic presidential contender who became Clinton’s running mate in 1992 — Al Gore.
A few months after Rector’s execution, and only six weeks after the devastating Los Angeles riot, Clinton again performed a brilliant bit of political theater to demonstrate his independence from black interests. During an appearance before the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Clinton made a startling rebuke of Jackson for having included the controversial rapper Sistah Souljah in a coalition panel.
“Her comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight,” Clinton said. “Just listen to this, what she said. She told the Washington Post about a month ago, and I quote, ‘If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? … So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person.’”
But Clinton took the quote totally — and one must assume deliberately — out of context. In the offending interview, Sistah Souljah had been asked to speculate as to why feuding black gangs in South Central had struck a truce during and after the riot. Her answer reflected her surmise as to what the Bloods and the Crips were thinking. Such a nicety was lost on the president and all those who applauded his apparently spontaneous outburst.
In fact, there was nothing spontaneous about it. The Clinton campaign had planned the confrontation to show Clinton’s independence — not from an obscure rap singer but from Jesse Jackson, the latter-day incarnation of what in the 1960s was routinely referred to as a “black militant.”
The strategy worked. Jackson’s profile in the 1992 convention and the fall campaign was the lowest in a decade. Clinton captured enough votes from places like Macomb County to triumph in a three-way race. And once in office, with Ricky Lee Rector and Sistah Souljah consigned to the footnotes of history, Clinton flourished his bona fides as a racial mediator. Few commentators doubted them, even as he was signing the punitive welfare bill during the 1996 campaign.
But it was Jackson, released from political quarantine one night during the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago, who offered a real vision of transracial politics. He spoke of the class-based economic issues he had propounded in his own bids for the presidency. He reminded the self-satisfied audience that it was dancing the Macarena on the edge of the vast, largely black West Side slums, which not so long ago had throbbed with tens of thousands of jobs at Sears, Western Electric and other businesses — all of them by now relocated or closed.
These people, too, along with the white “Reagan Democrats” of Macomb County, were supposed to have benefited from Bill Clinton’s pledge in 1992 to restore “good jobs at good wages” for the American working and lower classes. But as any informed American knows — and the recent books by Dick Morris and Robert Reich confirm in grim detail — Clinton has turned his back on the poor and blue-collar families who have been suffering from America’s hidden Depression for the past quarter-century.
It is dispiriting enough to recognize the chasm between the soothing rhetoric on race Clinton now offers and the cunning use of polarization he practiced to first gain the presidency. Worse still is the realization that the issues he should tackle in order to heal Americans of all races have by all available evidence been abandoned.