A revealing aspect of the current White House crisis is the racial gap in
public opinion polls, which is almost as wide as after the O.J. Simpson
verdict. When the world discovered in January that the president was having
sex with a young intern, a New York Times poll found that 81 percent of blacks (compared to 58 percent of whites) nonetheless approved of the way the president was
conducting his job. When asked whether the president shared the moral values
of most Americans, fully 77 percent of blacks (twice as many as whites) said yes.
Nine months later, after the discovery of the
stained dress and the release of the Starr Report, 63 percent of blacks still
thought the president -- now a proven liar and philanderer -- shared the
nation's morality. This was nearly three times the number of whites (22 percent) who did.
This striking disparity, reflecting a unique community support of the
president (even feminists are more ambivalent), has prompted several attempts to explain it. According to a widely quoted comment by comedian Chris Rock,
Clinton's African-American support is inspired by the fact that he is "the
first black president." Explains Rock: "It's very simple. Black people are
used to being persecuted. Hence, they relate to Clinton."
The comedian is not
alone in these ruminations. In an article exploring African-American
reactions, New York Times reporter Kevin Sack quotes NAACP head Julian Bond
saying, "You just can't help but think that some of this [investigation of
Clinton] is race-based," while Harvard Professor Alvin Poussaint reports that
rumors have been circulating in the African-American community to the effect
that Clinton "must have had black ancestry."
A full-blown expression of these attitudes is on display in the current New
Yorker, where Nobel laureate Toni Morrison writes of the crisis:
"African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the
middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white
skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any
actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime.
After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent
household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing,
McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."
Perhaps one has to be, as I am, a lapsed man of the left to react to the loopy anti-white attitudes laced into these cadences from our most celebrated and rewarded national literary figure. Blacker than any actual black person who
could ever be elected in our children's lifetimes? Apparently, Colin Powell,
the most popular presidential hopeful in polls taken only two years ago, isn't
all that black, having been born into a two-parent household and, though poor
in origins and familiar with discrimination, not known for his unhealthy
food addictions or stereotypical musical tastes.
On the other hand, perhaps the liberal identification of blackness with
victimization and social dysfunction isn't so wide of the mark in explaining
the sympathy of political leftists like Morrison and Bond, or the support of
the congressional black caucus for the immoralist from Little Rock. Perhaps
it reflects a resonance in the black community to the White House's cynical
strategy of defining presidential deviancy down: "They all do it." Roosevelt,
Kennedy, Eisenhower, Bush -- they all lie and cheat. So why shouldn't our
guy? This certainly seems to be the corrosive logic behind which some blacks
have rallied behind other criminal politicians, like corrupt and
crack-addicted Washington Mayor Marion Barry. It could easily account for
the undertones of racial paranoia ("they're out to get our guys") that
surfaced when African-American members of the Clinton administration -- Ron
Brown, Mike Espy, Hazel O'Leary -- all came under investigation for irregularities in office.
Which is precisely the way Toni Morrison frames Clinton's problem: "When
virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to
disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality
became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and
body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they
spoke?" According to Morrison, the message from white America is clear, "No
matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us,
we will put you in your place or put you out of the place." Or, as the late
Malcolm X, in his racist phase, once put it (I paraphrase): No matter how high
you rise, you're always a nigger to them.
Putting aside the racial paranoia of such attitudes coming from a black
Nobel prize-winner in the era of Oprah, one might still ask why Clinton
should be "our guy" from an African-American perspective. Isn't this the
President Clinton who established his New Democrat credentials by delivering a
verbal slap to Sistuh Souljah on the eve of his election, and banishing Jesse
Jackson from the circle of power? Isn't this the Clinton who betrayed
old friend and political soul mate Lani Guinier, after nominating her to be
his civil rights chief, and then left her to the mercies of her political
enemies, pretending ignorance of who she was and what she believed? Isn't
this the Clinton whose vaunted "dialogue on race" -- the centerpiece of
his strategy for redressing minority grievances -- ended up drowned in his own
sex scandal while the final report of his Race Commission called merely for
more dialogue? Reviewing the report, liberal columnist Frank Rich summed up
the administration's record on race as follows: "high ideals, beautiful
show, one-night stand."
Indeed, isn't this the Clinton who brought Jackson back into the fold
and wrapped himself in the protective cloak of the black community and its
historic symbols only when he himself was in terminal trouble, and only after
he had lost whatever power he once may have had to seriously advance its
agendas? Surely there have been few more repellent demonstrations of
Clinton's user ethic than his traipsing off to Africa, with Jackson and
Maxine Waters in tow, in the heat of the Lewinsky scandal after he had been
trapped in his lies and become an international laughingstock, to apologize
for slavery. Then there was his performance in Martha's Vineyard debasing the
anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington to make yet another
unconvincing confession of regret that he had "sinned." These are the kinds
of gestures that give tokenism a bad name.
Still, the most prominent voices of black leadership have joined willingly in these charades. There was John Lewis, at the Martin Luther King Jr. anniversary,
solemnly and tearfully forgiving Clinton and urging the rest of the country
to forgive him as well. It was terrible, apparently, for the rest of us to be
so judgmental of another human being. This was the same John Lewis who not so
long ago was denouncing Newt Gingrich and the congressional Republicans as
"Nazis" merely for attempting to reform a bankrupt and destructive welfare
This is what the melodramas of conspiracy and witch-hunt are really about.
Not racial persecution, but political loyalties. The previously cited Times
report also noted that "many of those interviewed said they not only
subscribed to Hillary Rodham Clinton's statement that a "vast right-wing
conspiracy" had targeted her husband, but also that they believed the
conspirators were motivated by a desire to reverse the gains made by blacks
during the Clinton administration. One paranoia is linked to another.
Liberals and leftists from Waters to Morrison to Hillary Clinton
have convinced the African-American community that Republicans are racists
and want to reverse the gains of the civil rights era. This is the really Big
Lie that keeps blacks in Clinton's corner and safely secure on the liberal
If liberals want instances of political persecution, they need go no further
than their own character assassination of Clarence Thomas in an episode of
sexual McCarthyism (to use Alan Dershowitz's inapt but effectively
inflammatory phrase) whose charges pale in comparison to those leveled
against Clinton. Where are the liberal apologies for this atrocity?
Or consider a more unpalatable thought: the political persecution of
Gingrich, which cannot be far from the speaker's own reflections as he
contemplates hearings that will determine the president's fate. Liberal
leaders of the House, hoping to reverse the results of the Republican victory
in the '94 election, leveled 370 phony ethics charges against Gingrich before
they got one ludicrous claim to stick (and I'm willing to bet there is not
one in a hundred Gingrich-loathing liberals who read this text that can
describe the specifics of the charge). Yet Gingrich was censured, fined and
politically destroyed outside his conservative base by what was little more
than a liberal smear campaign, and yet there is not a single liberal now
defending Clinton and bemoaning the unfairness of his prosecution who has
offered any second thoughts about the outrage.
That is because this outrage, like that against Thomas, serves a liberal
purpose. In the present presidential crisis, Gingrich is the point man for
the "right-wing conspiracy" that is seeking to bring down a leader in order
to "reverse" the civil rights gains of African-Americans. Cease to believe in
this political mythology and what happens to the president, or to the leftist
demagogues in the congressional black caucus who are still wedded to every
jot and tittle of the failed welfare state? What if Republicans no longer
function as racial bogey men? What if African-Americans were to see that
Republican policies like educational choice and Republican values like
personal responsibility work to the benefit of their community? What if they
were no longer to vote 90 percent Democratic? What if they were to free themselves
from the chains of a one-party system that feeds them tokens and shamelessly
exploits their moral capital for its own venal agendas?
These are the real stakes that keep the political melodrama alive, and that
prevent a taken-for-granted political community from fully entering the
American polity and exercising its political power.