More trouble for the Clintons

Time stood still inside a corner storefront on Malcolm X Boulevard.

At Sen. Barack Obama’s headquarters in Harlem, busy campaign volunteers stopped, stood and stared in amazement at the scene unfolding on the wide-screen television.

There he was, Sen. Ted Kennedy, a big, white embodiment of the Democratic political establishment, reaching out to embrace the man who could become the nation’s first black president.

Kennedy’s endorsement was a passing of the torch, the Kennedy mystique, and was a decidedly colorblind honor. The corner storefront was filled with cheers. It was as if the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was being realized right in front of everyone’s eyes.

“This is big, big, big, big. I should have been in D.C., man,” proclaimed Sheriff Massaquoi, 35, a physician’s assistant, taking a break from telephoning voters last Monday.

“Caroline’s right there,” Massaquoi said, pointing to the daughter of the slain President John F. Kennedy on the screen. “This is big, big, big. Clinton’s going to go crazy now!”

The storefront shook with laughter from a still-growing crowd of black faces staring into the big screen.

It wasn’t just a reference to the Illinois lawmaker’s rival for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

It was also a dig at her husband, former President Bill Clinton — that “crazy” neighbor who has an office just down the block.

Here, in Harlem, the community considered the historic center of black American culture, it was also a sign of an old friendship under strain, and what is an increasingly pitched battle by the two campaigns for the nation’s black voters.

When the former president was looking for a foundation office, he chose a nondescript office building here on 125th Street, across from a soul-food joint and not far from the fabled Apollo Theater.

It symbolizes the Clintons’ longtime connection to the greater black community — its causes, its leaders, its everyday people. And, yes, its dreams, too.

For years now, Bill Clinton has proudly carried the unofficial title of “first black president” — an honor bestowed by literary giant Toni Morrison.

But last week, Morrison endorsed Obama. At that soul-food joint was an Obama campaign flier — one recalling King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to make the case that this candidacy is part of the same struggle for civil rights.

Those fliers were plastered all over a bulletin board across the street from the Apollo Theater. Above them was one lonely little sticker for the “first black president’s” first lady, “Hillary.”

And at Obama headquarters, some folks were scoffing at that old, honorary title, especially after Bill Clinton has gone on offense for his wife’s campaign and at times appeared to be trying to diminish the candidacy of the first black candidate to get even this close to becoming a resident of the White House.

“I think there’s confusion, even in (Bill) Clinton’s mind, when we say he’s the ‘first black president,’ ” said Daria Skeete, 53, who runs a small online business.

Skeete said the nickname means people appreciate his being the first president in a long time who didn’t seem to write off blacks’ concerns.

But she said it doesn’t give him the sort of license to speak out like he has — like when some thought he was discounting Obama’s South Carolina primary victory just because most of the state’s Democratic voters were black.

“Let’s say you get an honorary doctorate (from a university),” Skeete said. “You cannot go to a hospital and operate on somebody.”

Though various black leaders have rushed to Clinton’s defense, saying his comments have widely been misinterpreted, even the Clintons’ most powerful ally in Harlem, the venerable Rep. Charles Rangel, has questioned the recent statements.

The Hill, a congressional newspaper, quoted Rangel as telling a group of business leaders in Washington: “Bill Clinton has been more emotional than presidential.”

And in recent days, the former president has stuck more closely to his campaign surrogate’s script.

The Clintons might consider Harlem their territory now. It is the heart and soul of the senator’s constituency. But at best, it’s adopted home turf.

And now that the rivalry in the Democratic presidential contest has gotten nasty at times, there are at least a few signs of a new divide between the man in the upstairs office and the people of color down on the Harlem sidewalks.

It could be the first few bricks being laid for a wall between neighbors who’ve long considered themselves close friends. Or bygones could be bygones by the time a nominee is selected at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

“I think it’s political drama. It’s to be expected in any campaign,” said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the landmark Abyssinian Baptist Church.

He thinks the media are making it more dramatic than it is.

Maybe so, but even Hillary Clinton’s supporters know they’re now fighting an uphill battle to win the historic community that the former president considers a second home.