Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Before Bill Clinton Was “the First Black President”

with one comment



March 6, 2007


c.2007 Newhouse News Service


 (UNDATED) In bidding for black support, Hillary Clinton depends on the unbreakable bond Bill Clinton forged with black Americans during his presidency.

    But well before the likes of Chris Rock and Toni Morrison dubbed Clinton America’s “first black president,” there were Ricky Ray Rector, Sister Souljah, Lani Guinier and Clinton’s calculated strategy of proving to white voters that he was not unduly beholden to black interests. Only when Clinton was engulfed in the scandal that led to his impeachment did Rock and Morrison take note of his blackness. And now Hillary Clinton faces, in Barack Obama, something her husband never confronted _ an actual black opponent.

    “What did Bill Clinton do to deserve the level of support he has in black America? It’s really hard to say, other than symbolism,” said historian Kenneth O’Reilly, who in his 1995 book, “Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics From Washington to Clinton,” detailed how Clinton, “arguably the least prejudiced” man ever to serve as president, brought his own brand of “race-baiting” to winning and keeping the White House.

    Whatever misgivings black leaders and the rank-and-file may have had dissolved amid the pursuit of Clinton by what many saw as familiar enemies.

    “Once Monica Lewinsky came out, then all the ambivalence about Clinton on the color line was gone,” O’Reilly said. “Clinton was embracing Jesse Jackson in the White House. Before, he didn’t even want to be seen with Jesse Jackson.”

    The black vote is the bedrock of the Democratic base, and the keen competition for its allegiance in the 2008 presidential race came to an early head when Obama and both Clintons appeared Sunday in Selma, Ala., for the anniversary of the historic 1965 marches for voting rights there.

    Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, spoke from the pulpit at Brown Chapel on Martin Luther King Street. Hillary Clinton, the second-term senator from New York and a late add after news broke of Obama’s plans, addressed those gathered just up the street at First Baptist. Bill Clinton, an even later add, joined the others as they linked arms to march in remembrance across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

    The former president’s presence provoked a palpable, palpitating affection.

    “He has a great deal of support in the black community,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery. “But he’s not running.”

    Lowery, a former King lieutenant and one of his successors at the helm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, offered an impromptu introduction of Obama at Brown Chapel _ a brief, buoyant sermon about how America might be on the verge of doing something “good crazy.”

    Of the former president, Lowery said, “Clinton has a mixed record. He was very good in some instances and questionable in others.”

    Clinton defended affirmative action in its direst hour _ pledging to “mend it, not end it.” But, Lowery observed, he also signed the 1994 crime bill with its “three-strikes-you’re-out” provision, fueling the historic surge in the nation’s disproportionately black prison population.

    What is remarkable about Clinton is his ability to draw closer to blacks over a career in which he succeeded in important part by putting daylight between himself and the traditional civil rights agenda.

    Whether in signing the crime bill or fulfilling a campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it,” Clinton drew his agenda from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, formed to rid the Democratic Party of the taint that it was the cowering captive of minority and other liberal “special interests.”

    In his first campaign for the presidency, then Arkansas Gov. Clinton rebuffed the entreaties of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others to commute the death sentence of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer. Clinton even flew home during the campaign to be present for Rector’s execution in January 1992. Rector was mentally impaired, famously declaring that he would save the slice of pecan pie from his final meal “for later.”

    For a generation, Democratic candidates had been attacked as soft on crime. In the 1988 campaign, Lee Atwater, political strategist for Republican George H.W. Bush, made devastating use of the fact that Democrat Michael Dukakis, as Massachusetts governor, had presided over a prison furlough program that provided a black convicted murderer identified as Willie Horton the opportunity to rape a woman and savagely beat her fiance.

    As political scientist Jeremy Mayer wrote in his 2002 book, “Running on Race,” “in killing Rector, Clinton was exorcising the ghost of Willie Horton from the Democratic Party.”

    In June 1992, Clinton seized another opportunity to diss Jackson. Appearing by Jackson‘s side at a Rainbow Coalition summit on the Los Angeles riots that followed acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, he compared Sister Souljah, a provocative rapper who was on a panel the night before, to white supremicist David Duke. The rebuke, and Jackson‘s evident hurt, became a tableau of Clinton‘s willingness to take on the black leadership.

    Clinton‘s tacking on race continued through his presidency. He appointed Lani Guinier, a Yale Law School classmate of both Clintons, to be assistant attorney general for civil rights. But when the right caricatured Guinier’s views on race as those of a “quota queen,” Clinton withdrew her nomination. (Deval Patrick, now governor of Massachusetts, ultimately got the job.)

    According to David Bositis, an authority on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, in three-way races (Ross Perot ran as an independent) in 1992 and 1996, Clinton got 82 percent and 84 percent of the black vote respectively. By contrast, John Kerry won 88 percent in 2004, and Al Gore 90 percent in 2000.

    But when scandal rocked the Clinton White House in its second term, black support rocketed.

    It was Chris Rock in the August 1998 Vanity Fair who described Clinton as “the first black president.”

    “He’s the most scrutinized man in history, just as a black person would be,” Rock explained. “He spends a hundred dollar bill, they hold it up to the light.”

    Two months later, Toni Morrison sealed the deal with a piece in which she wrote that Clinton might be “our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”

    “After all,” Morrison wrote, “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.” And, with the Lewinsky scandal, “his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution.”

    “Black America understands the use of sex to destroy somebody, pretty much at the end of a rope in the lynching of many black men,” said O’Reilly.

    Bositis said it was U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who read the riot act to any Democrats thinking about defecting from Clinton‘s defense.

    Bound in embrace in a time of crisis, the love affair between Bill Clinton and black America has gone unquestioned ever since.

    But it is not clear that it is transferable, especially since his support was never tested in a campaign against a black candidate.

    Consider the Rev. Lowery. He worked hard for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the 2004 primaries (Edwards is also a candidate this year). Lowery admires Hillary Clinton. But, while he said it is still way too early to endorse, “I don’t see how I cannot support Obama; he’s the first guy whose got a real shot at getting on the ticket.”


Written by jonathantilove

October 28, 2008 at 2:50 am

One Response

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  1. Sammy

    October 28, 2008 at 8:49 am

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