Many white Americans never understood black America’s love affair with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Although the meteoric rise of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — the new darling of many blacks, especially the young — has dampened the Clinton amour, the old affair still has enough fire for a brief examination.
For millions of blacks, Bill Clinton was and is an “honorary” black. And, in the famous words of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, he is the “first black president.” Throughout Bill Clinton’s eight years in the White House, his poll numbers among blacks averaged 90 percent, at one time soaring to 93 percent. He consistently topped the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Gen. Colin Powell in popularity. Even after he dropped his nomination of Lani Guinier for attorney general, fired Jocelyn Elders as surgeon general and “changed welfare as we know it,” he enjoyed high approval.
To the dismay of many whites, the overwhelming majority of blacks stood by Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment crisis. They smelled white hypocrisy, identifying with a persecuted friend.
“Serious as adultery is, it is not a national catastrophe,” Morrison wrote at the time, nicely capturing the black mind-set. “Women leaving hotels following trysts with their extramarital lovers tell pollsters they abominate Mr. Clinton’s behavior. Relaxed men fresh from massage parlors frown earnestly into the camera at the mere thought of such malfeasance.” Blacks always believed that Whitewater was, as Hillary Clinton often said, part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to bring down the president. Blacks resented the attacks from the right wing, and they resented white conservatives’ mean-spirited lectures on character, principles and family values.
On the plus side, Bill Clinton supported policies, such as narrowly tailored affirmative action programs, that were designed to assist blacks. They credited him for a robust economy that boosted black employment, home ownership, entrepreneurship and opportunities in education.
With little fanfare, Bill Clinton appointed more blacks to Cabinet and other posts than any other president. In fact, 13 percent of his appointments were black.
Most blacks lauded the president’s historic trip to Africa, where he apologized for slavery. He introduced a U.S. race initiative and appointed black historian John Hope Franklin as its chairman. Although white conservatives derailed the initiative, blacks gave Bill Clinton credit for trying to do the right thing on their behalf.
Beyond politics and the economy, many blacks saw Bill Clinton as a kindred soul in ways that had a lot to do with comfort, perceptions and feelings. Blacks liked the president’s personal style, his savoir faire and his unpretentiousness and easy movements and demeanor in their presence. They did not judge him as harshly as did whites on morality.
Vernon Jordan, a black lawyer, was Bill Clinton’s golfing buddy and confidant, and the president’s personal secretary was a black woman. Even after he was safely in the White House, Bill Clinton invited himself to black churches, prayed alongside blacks and sang Negro spirituals without a hymnal, no small matter.
He regularly brought black jazz musicians, rock stars, athletes, children and business owners to the White House, no small matter.
During a May 2002 interview, National Public Radio’s Tavis Smiley asked the president to explain why he and “black folk get along so well together.” The response is worth quoting at length: “Well, I think it’s partly the way I was raised. I had two very unusual grandparents who had no formal education to speak of. The worst racists in the South were the lower middle class whites because they needed someone to look down on. My grandparents weren’t that way. They were for integration the whole time. My granddaddy had a little grocery store, and almost all of his customers were black. And so I grew up different than most kids did my age. Then, I was blessed to go to law school with some African-Americans who became friends of mine. . . .
“You take a group of people that have been under the gun for generations, and they develop extraordinary antennae about who’s with them, who’s against them, who’s just shaking around and who’s for real. But the main thing is I just wanted all the people in our party to be committed to an agenda that would empower African-Americans. . . . One of the reasons I wanted to be in politics is that I didn’t like racism, and I didn’t like inequality, and I wanted to do something about it.” While embracing the president’s egalitarian spirit, the same blacks accepted Hillary Clinton because, like her husband, she had proved to be a friend of blacks and had shown earnest commitment to their issues.
Even as a teen-ager in Chicago, she and other girls in her church organized fellow teens to baby-sit for migrant workers. At Yale Law School, she supported black efforts, including the defense of Black Panthers. As first lady of Arkansas and the nation, she championed causes significant to blacks and other minority groups.
For these reasons and others, older civil rights leaders and politicians, such as John Lewis, Julian Bond and Charles Rangel, supported Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House from the beginning. They believe they know her, and they trust her.
Many young blacks, however, who did not come of age during the civil rights movement and who did not personally experience the Clinton magic, have no loyalty to the Clintons. Instead, the overwhelming majority of them support Obama — who, like them, was not part of the movement but who greatly benefited from it.
Now, the Clintons no longer can take for granted broad black support. For the first time since they have been in public life, they must compete for the affection of black Americans. Ironically, they must compete against a black man.
(Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail maxwell(at)sptimes.com.)