Bill Clinton will reportedly have a speaking role at the Denver convention. Can someone explain why that was ever in question?

Published August 9, 2008 2:40AM (EDT)

I got the last word on MSNBC's "Race to the White House" Thursday night, to insist Democrats had to find a place for Bill Clinton on the Denver convention agenda later this month. It was a controversial statement on the show, but, whew. Somebody apparently agreed with me. War Room reports the former president will speak before the vice-presidential nominee Wednesday night of the convention. I hope it's true.

I don't have time to explore Bill Clinton's many roles in this election. I could spend thousands of words defending him, and I could spend thousands of words criticizing him. It really doesn't matter. He is the only two-term Democratic president of my lifetime. The Democratic Party, all of it, needs to come together. Barack Obama needed to find a way to include Bill Clinton, and I'm thrilled that it sounds like he has.

I was going to title this post, "What Might Have Been." Ten years ago, I headlined a story about Bill Clinton that way. I covered his 1999 State of the Union address, in which I found much to admire, and I lamented that he'd squandered political capital defending against the Lewinsky mess and impeachment. What a waste. So I know intimately the disappointments of supporting and defending Bill Clinton. I've written about it, and also about Hillary Clinton's shortcomings, many times in these 10 years.

And yet I still believe Hillary Clinton is the best running mate for Barack Obama -- but I also know Bill Clinton is why Obama can't pick her. I'm disappointed by that, even as I understand it, given that Obama's other choices (that we've heard about) are so lackluster. Some people say it's Bill Clinton's loose lips (etc.); others say it's his refusal -- even when his wife was running for president -- to release his full business client list and roster of donors to his foundation. I understand those concerns; I don't blame Obama, at all, and still, it's disappointing. I've talked to ex-Clinton staffers who say there's no way Hillary will be V.P., so I've become resigned.

I became utterly convinced it wouldn't happen when I saw Bill Clinton's touchy interview with ABC's Kate Snow, in which he declared "I am not a racist." It was hard to watch, partly because I believe he'd never have mouthed off like that if his wife was being vetted as V.P. Part of me wished the former president had kept his mouth shut, to protect his wife as well as Obama; part of me still wished Obama surrogates hadn't found it necessary to label our last Democratic president a racist, when he really quite clearly isn't one. I can't shake the feeling that if you want to fret about why the Democratic Party isn't coming back together entirely, just yet, all that mess would be a good place to start cleaning up.

I'm not sure demonizing the Clintons as racist was necessary to elect Barack Obama, or to turn back Hillary Clinton. Maybe it will turn out that it was. But it came at a huge cost, one that is still being paid, as you can see in polls showing Obama has less support from self-stated Democrats than the apostate John McCain has from Republicans. That shouldn't be. But the primary is still with us.

It's still fashionable to blame zealous pro-Clinton PUMAs for the schism, and call them menopausal, cranky freaks. There are a few out there. But I think there are also rational Democrats still shaking their heads over how the civil-rights-championing Clintons were turned into racist white scapegoats.

Of course, if some white Democrats are still smarting over the Clintons' treatment, it may well be a measure of their insulation from racial abuse that they have no way to make the hurt go away. By contrast, Americans from minority groups all have colorful stories to explain what it feels like when a white person they consider a close friend decides they're nothing but a "fill in the blank." Many years ago a close Jewish friend explained how his mother told him, sure, he might want to marry a non-Jewish woman, but the first fight they had, his shiksa wife would call him a "dirty kike." African-Americans have a near ly infinite variety of turns on that theme: the many ways they ultimately discover that, despite close bonds with nonblacks, when push comes to shove, they can wind up suddenly nothing but ... black. Often the word to signify black starts with N.

Whites don't have those stories. We're sheltered and privileged, mostly. But watching the Clintons get smeared as racist, from my privileged white perch, I had the first inkling of what my black and Jewish friends might have felt like. There was a thuggish element to the commentary about the Clintons, and their supporters, that hurt more than a few white civil rights backers, people who thought they were down with the movement, people who believe they've sacrificed for their racial views, and been outcasts at the big, fun party/networking event going on 24/7, also known as mainstream America. Some felt like at the end of the day, if they expressed reservations about Obama or respect for Clinton, well, suddenly they were just another ... white racist.

Democrats will survive. Sheltered white civil rights backers will survive. The Clintons will definitely survive. But it's worth some Democrats on both sides who got involved in stone throwing to examine what happened, and how destructive some of it was. Short of that, Obama's reaching out to Bill Clinton, finding him a place at the convention, and pulling the party together after a few months in which people on both sides behaved badly, could go a long way to accomplishing the same thing. I hope it is really going to happen.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections