Black like me

The smearing of White House lawyer Cheryl Mills raised my nationalist ire -- but I'm white.


Joan Walsh
January 24, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

I don't like black nationalism, but I understand it. I reject it viscerally, but its logic pulls at me anyway. Here's the problem: Deep down I really do see black America as a separate nation -- but though I'm white, I feel a part of it.

Or at least I felt a part of it as I watched White House lawyer Cheryl Mills during Wednesday's impeachment proceedings. From the moment I saw this poised black woman in the well of the Senate I tuned in to the Clinton trial in a different way. How did she look? How did she sound? Was she coming across effectively? I cringed while I made those assessments. But I had some psychic stake here. I was thrilled -- relieved? -- to watch her acquit herself on all counts. She was smart and persuasive. She carried herself well, dressed in her feminine but conservative gray suit -- a little too boxy, truth be told, not as tailored or chic as it might have been -- but I wouldn't have wanted to be Cheryl Mills as she was getting dressed that morning.

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Believe me, all over black America people were watching Cheryl Mills the same way. And while I had some quibbles -- Was she in charge of Betty Currie's defense sister to sister? Did she really have to thank the president for giving her the opportunity to defend him? Was the acclaim she received afterwards a little condescending, damning with heavy praise? -- all in all, I ranked it a good day for black America. A 33-year-old black woman went to the belly of one of the whitest beasts of the nation -- the U.S. Congress -- battled Henry Hyde and co. and got the better of him. She did her j-o-b.

But then the smears began. On MSNBC the self-important Brian Williams -- Tom Brokaw's heir apparent, according to a fawning profile in the January Vanity Fair -- accused Mills of playing the "race card" and compared her to Johnnie Cochran when she said something didn't "fit." (No, she didn't rhyme it with acquit.) Williams did the same thing the next night, referring again to Mills' use of the race card, as if he'd invented the term. After black Maryland radio talk show host Joe Madison had effusively praised Mills, Williams turned to his other guest, white conservative radio host Howie Carr of Boston, and sneered derisively: "You didn't hear much of that in Boston, did you Howie?"

Then along came Laura Ingraham, the far right's pin-up girl, with the eyes of a seductress and the mouth of a bully. In hushed tones she revealed a big scoop: While the rest of the press corps was reporting that Mills and the Clinton team had bested the Republican prosecutors, Ingraham said her Republican House manager sources believed Mills may have actually set Clinton's case back. How? Because by testifying that Clinton had helped her professionally, she opened the door to a slew of women witnesses the Republicans might call who would testify Clinton had hurt them personally and professionally, including Kathleen Willey. Ingraham tried to look sorrowful, sorrowful, tsk-tsking over what that poor misguided black girl done brought on herself, but her ever-present smirk, like Williams' smugness, couldn't help but break through.

There you have it: Two nations in a nutshell. Black America is proud of Cheryl Mills; white America, as represented by Laura Ingraham and Brian Williams, is gonna bring her down. This sense of permanent ambush makes you understand why black pundits get a little bit dotty sometimes. When I see that dottiness -- the lame defense of O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Louis Farrakhan -- I part company with black America (see, I get to do that, because I'm white).

But it's impossible to stay separated for long, when you watch this trial come down to the words and deeds of Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan, now Cheryl Mills -- and don't forget Monica Lewinsky. Not a single member of the "real America," in Bob Barr's famous formulation, among them. You understand what's at stake for black America, why a group of voters who are actually socially conservative are defending this womanizing, welfare-cutting president. It's very simple: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. And mine, too.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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