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Playing the race card: Nothing new for Clinton

Howard Manly | 4/16/2009, 11:21 a.m.

It started as a joke — something funny that comedian Chris Rock wrote in Vanity Fair about Bill Clinton being the first black president.

The joke gained gravitas when Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison pondered why President Clinton received second-hand treatment from conservatives during his scandal-plagued eight years in office.

“Years ago,” Morrison wrote, “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, [Bill] Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness —

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single-parent household, born poor, working class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”

Now that Morrison has come out for Barack Obama, her line of thought is better untangled by social historians. What is left unstated is the almost seismic shift in black devotion to Clinton.

Once considered unshakeable, black voters in South Carolina voted overwhelmingly for Obama, leaving Hillary Clinton staggering, yet again. First it was in Iowa, and now in the Deep South, where Hillary’s former president husband was thought to be a favorite son. More important: while Obama gained 80 percent of the black vote, he gained 20 percent of the white vote at a time when many pollsters believed he would only earn 10 percent.

That shift can be attributed to the genuine credibility of Obama’s message of change and the sheer transparency of one of the most basic of Clinton political strategies — playing the race card.

The gambit opened earlier this month with Hillary Clinton suggesting that Obama was no Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and worse, that Dr. King’s role was in some way minimized because it took President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Rewriting history is one thing, but Clinton allies took their strikes against Obama to a personal level. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon who marched with King, defended Hillary Clinton and said Obama, indeed, is no Dr. King. Billionaire Bob Johnson, the former owner of Black Entertainment Television, further stirred the pot by referring to Obama’s admitted youthful drug use. Johnson later apologized for his “inappropriate” comments.

And there was Bill himself, calling Obama’s record on Iraq “a fairy tale,” and then telling black folks in South Carolina that he understands if people vote along racial and gender lines “because people are proud when someone who they identify with emerges for the first time.”

That’s probably true, but the question remains: What does that say about your supposed honorary status?

It was pretty good for a while. Even after all the political scandals and impeachment hearings, even after the whole sordid Monica Lewinsky affair, even after the whole Southern strategy of moving to the political center and attracting so-called Reagan Democrats at the expense of “special interests,” a pejorative term that came to embody the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sister Souljah — and for that matter, Joycelyn Elders and Lani Guinier — blacks stuck with Clinton.

His approval rating among blacks when he left the Oval Office was a staggering 87 percent. At the time, only 45 percent of whites viewed the president favorably.

The explanations offered by scholars on the strange relationship between Bill Clinton and blacks are varied. But one theme repeatedly emerges — his blinding opportunism.

Michael Eric Dyson was probably right when he argued that blacks “may have been grateful that there finally was a president who was comfortable around black folks, familiar with their songs and in tune with their spiritual yearnings since he shared in the common culture that binds white and black southerners in poignant and peculiar ways.”

In fact, Bill Clinton liked to tell interviewers that he knew the words to “Lift Every Voice,” the so-called black national anthem.

But Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy took a sharper tack in an essay he wrote in 1999 for The American Prospect magazine called “Is he a soul man? On Black support for Clinton.”

The fact that many blacks “feel truly beholden to Clinton for his racial policies is a sign of how little they expect from political establishment,” Kennedy wrote. “Accustomed to being dealt with as outsiders — particularly after 12 years of Reagan-Bush administrations — they are overwhelmed with gratitude for a president who treats them as significant members of the American polity.”

Kennedy argued that Bill Clinton’s support of civil rights has coincided with his “advancing his own political career.”

On that point, Dyson zeroed in.

“Blacks have mistaken Clinton’s ease with them as a sign of his good trustworthy character, when in fact Clinton’s racial politics are among the most destructive among recent presidents, precisely because they depend on an exploitative duplicity,” Dyson wrote in 2000. “When it benefits him, Clinton reaches out to blacks; when it hurts him, he withdraws the hand of racial charity.”

Dyson went further, saying Bill Clinton “is willing to turn every speck of black familiarity into a political advantage and hold black folks hostage to a corrupt racial politics that says, in effect: ‘I’m all you got, so take me or lose progress.’”

One needs look no further than Clinton’s own presidential run in 1991 to see part of his battle-tested blueprint.

Dogged by conservative criticisms that the Democratic Party was soft on crime and beholden to special interests, Clinton was determined, as Dyson wrote, “to become a New Democrat and a large part of that entailed a racial paradox: finding a way to get distance on the most loyal constituency — liberal black voters — to secure the loyalty of disaffected.”

Race has always been an issue in American presidential politics, but none of the modern-day candidates have played the card as effectively as Bill Clinton. After all, he won two elections, largely on the backs of black voters.

The most glaring example came during the weeks leading to the New Hampshire primary in 1991. Despite his frontrunner status, the Arkansas governor was facing tough competition from Paul Tsongas and tabloid claims about his alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers. Whispers about possible draft-dodging were not helping matters.

Despite such pressure, Clinton, a longtime death penalty supporter, found the time to leave the hectic campaign trail in New Hampshire and preside over the execution of convicted cop-killer Rickey Ray Rector. After Rector had pulled the trigger on the two men, he tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. He was virtually brain-dead.

But the reason for Rector’s state execution had little do with his mental state. Clinton refused to be considered soft-on-crime or have Rector become his Willie Horton, the convicted felon whose release dogged the 1988 presidential candidacy of Michael Dukakis. Conservative Republicans made political points on Horton, but that card was first played by the Democratic campaign of Al Gore — Clinton’s eventual running mate.

“Clinton is no racial healer,” screamed a headline on Salon.com. “The president likes to position himself as a model of racial enlightenment. In fact, he’s a hypocrite who played the race card to win election — and has done nothing to help struggling Americans, black or white.”

In the story, written in 1997 by Samuel G. Freedman, the author of “The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond” and “Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church,” Clinton was reduced from a racial mediator to a shameless panderer.

“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,” Freedman wrote at the beginning of Clinton’s second term. “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.

Given the use of race during the recent primaries, it’s little wonder that among some blacks, the thrill for the Clintons is apparently gone.

Political strategist Donna Brazile said as much when she told the Washington Post she was leery of the appearance of the race card in this election.

“I’m trying to keep my joy,” she said, “and it’s very difficult when the subtext becomes race … They are wading [in] treacherous waters.”

And Brazile was quick to point out just who was playing it — and who was not.

“Obama doesn’t do race at all,” she said. “He’s the candidate of reconciliation … He doesn’t do protests, he doesn’t do victim politics. It’s not in him. He’s not relying on divisions to win this.”