Is He a Soul Man?

A large percentage of black Americans have supported President Bill Clinton with remarkable intensity in his darkest moment of political and legal peril. It is as if, in his vulnerability, he had become more attractive. "We are going to the wall for this President," Henry Louis (Skip) Gates, Jr., declared in August 1998 on Martha's Vineyard, at a ceremony mainly organized by luminaries of the black Establishment: folks such as Charles Ogletree, Christopher Edley, and Leon Higginbotham. In the months since then, black politicians—especially Democratic members of the House of Representatives like John Conyers, Maxine Waters, and Charles Rangel—have been among the most aggressively outspoken defenders of the President. But black support for Clinton reaches way beyond Martha's Vineyard or Harvard Square or the Congressional Black Caucus. It reaches deep into the ranks of teachers, cabbies, police officers, janitors, barbers, carpenters, and beauticians. No racial group—and maybe no group period—has been more solidly supportive of Clinton. Polls indicated that that was true before the midterm congressional election; black support for Democrats in those elections subsequently confirmed the polls. Of course, local contests were often more than a simple referendum on the Clinton Question. But it is clear that a deep desire to help the imperiled President animated a substantial portion of the black turnout which, in several important contests—the governors' races in Maryland, Georgia, and South Carolina; Senate races in South Carolina and New York—proved decisive.

Indeed, Clinton has been embraced by some blacks as one of "their own." Writing in Time, Jack E. White observed that "This is a President who connects with blacks so strongly that some of us jokingly maintain that he's only passing for white." And the novelist Toni Morrison maintained in the New Yorker that during the Whitewater investigation some blacks began to murmur that "white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President."

What Clinton Has Done for Blacks

The main explanation for blacks' widespread and enthusiastic support of Clinton is the perception that he has been supportive of them. Clinton loyalists point to his record on appointments; he has appointed more blacks to high positions within the executive and judicial branches of the federal government than any other president. They point to his race-specific policies, most importantly his support for affirmative action. In light of judicial attacks on affirmative action and its evident unpopularity among many whites, some advisors counseled Clinton to repudiate these controversial programs. He ultimately rejected that advice, however, declaring that his administration would "mend, not end" affirmative action. Clinton loyalists also applaud his year-long conversation on race. They note that its achievements, if any, were negligible; but they nonetheless give Clinton credit for a willingness to invest political capital in a venture that was aimed at educating Americans about racial problems that many prefer to ignore.

Black Clinton enthusiasts also point to patterns of conduct indicating that this president genuinely likes black people, enjoys being around them in a wide variety of settings, and is willing to display these sentiments publicly. They refer to Clinton's open friendship with Vernon Jordan, his manifest admiration for John Lewis, and his frequent and active attendance at black churches. They note, too, Clinton's attentiveness to redressing egregious symbolic slights that blacks have suffered, and to expressing sorrow for the many wrongs that whites have inflicted upon blacks over the course of several centuries. They recall, for instance, the award of Medals of Honor to black veterans of World War II; the elevation in rank for General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (the neglected black leader of the famous Tuskeegee Airmen); the apology for the infamous Tuskeegee syphilis experiment; and the state visit to black-run nations in Africa, a first in the history of the American presidency.

They also note Bill Clinton's enemies—the fact that his most vociferous opponents are people like Tom DeLay, Trent Lott, and Bob Barr—white, southern Republicans who are the updated ideological heirs of the white supremacists who have fought every advance by black people. With enemies like that, some blacks feel, Clinton must be doing something right. Supporters believe, moreover, that a substantial amount of the right-wing animus that has fueled efforts to destroy Clinton derives from anger at his solicitude for blacks. They intuit that, at some level, a substantial number of Clinton's white antagonists view him as a "nigger lover," whose closeness to blacks is reason enough to distrust and attack him. Some blacks therefore feel a certain amount of responsibility for Clinton's misfortune, sensing that he is being crucified in part because of his public and emotional embrace of their cause.

Black Clinton enthusiasts are activated by several other considerations as well. One is that under Clinton's economic policies, many blacks (like many whites) are faring well. On his watch, for example, black unemployment levels are at a 40-year low. Some blacks also feel that they should have a special empathy for leaders, like Clinton, who badly stumble. "We are a forgiving people," some blacks say with pride, "a people who believe in redemption for those who have fallen." Just as many highly politicized blacks resisted moves to ostracize Jesse Jackson in the aftermath of his "Hymietown" remark, Marion Barry in the aftermath of his drug bust, or Alcee Hastings in the aftermath of the bribery scandal that cost him his position as a federal judge (he is now a congressman!), they also resist calls for ousting Clinton, and, instead, rally around him.


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The Meaning of Black Support

African Americans' response to Clinton reveals the strength of the sentimental ties that bind blacks to the Democratic Party—and not necessarily in an entirely positive light. Blacks sometimes wander from the Democratic fold in local elections to reward a particular Republican or punish a particular Democrat. But in terms of presidential politics, blacks clearly constitute the Democrats' most loyal constituency. This loyalty is both a strength and a weakness: loyalty is a strength when it prompts presidential policymakers to value the African-American bloc; it is a weakness when it encourages policymakers to devalue black voters on the grounds that they cannot or will not defect, "belong" to the Democratic Party, and can therefore safely be shortchanged in the hard bargaining of interest group politics.

Second, the enthusiasm with which some blacks support Clinton reveals a psychological neediness that generates two important tendencies. One is a tendency toward undue gratitude. That many blacks feel truly beholden to Clinton for his racial policies is a sign of how little they expect from the political Establishment; 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. A corresponding tendency is to minimize the extent to which blacks' own collective action accounts for the political goods that the African-American community receives.

Black Americans and their political representatives ought to stop feeling excessively grateful to Bill Clinton (and politicians like him). Yes, Clinton did appoint Ron Brown, Mike Espy, Hazel O'Leary, Franklin Raines, and others. But in doing so Clinton was by no means heroically climbing out on a ledge on behalf of black folk. He was mainly doing what other constituencies expect of an electoral politician as a matter of course: paying back those groups that supported him. Through their electoral support, blacks have earned the collective benefits they have received from Clinton.

Clinton boosters have long trumpeted his "special" concern with racial justice for blacks and his "special" capacity to heal racial wounds, characteristics said to stem from his background as a white southerner who came of age during the civil rights revolution and admires its aims. They seem to believe his assertion that his commitment to racial equality is nonnegotiable. This assessment, however, is larded with large dollops of sentimentality. It is a good thing for blacks that, for Clinton, supporting African Americans' basic civil rights has largely coincided with advancing his own political career. If a strong tension developed between what was good for his career and what was good for African Americans, blacks could not be reasonably confident about the choices Clinton would make. Although many blacks have shown a willingness (as Skip Gates says) to go to the wall for Clinton, one may wonder whether, had roles been reversed, Clinton would do the same. He certainly has shown no willingness to do so on any occasion during the years of his presidency. Absent from his record is any episode in which he risked considerable political capital on behalf of a fight for racial justice that would benefit black people. Some might say that he did so in supporting affirmative action, but they would be wrong. A shrewd, cautious, hard-boiled politician, Clinton recognized that he would have risked much more by abandoning affirmative action than by continuing his measured support of it. While reversing on affirmative action would not have brought voters into his fold, it would have alienated the many black Democrats for whom affirmative action is a litmus test. African Americans do thus exert some degree of influence over Democratic Party policymaking. That influence should be seen for what it is—a consequence of politics—and not the result of Clintonian beneficence.

Race and Responsibility

There were and are opportunities for Clinton to show "special" concern for blacks by taking a real gamble on their behalf. For instance, one of the most outrageous (albeit neglected) stories of judicial politics today is the way in which Jesse Helms and a few other reactionary politicians in the Carolinas have stymied any appointment of distinguished progressive jurists to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals—a pathetic state of affairs which has meant that no black has ever sat on the federal appeals bench that oversees the federal trial courts in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. It would require a sizeable political investment for the President to attempt seriously to shake Helms's disgraceful stranglehold. The effort might ultimately fail. But even what may seem initially to be a losing effort—and sometimes such efforts surprisingly prevail, as Clinton the student of the civil rights movement should know—at least has the benefit of placing a marker, proving beyond a doubt a person's bona fide commitment to the aims he espouses. Clinton can boast no such markers.

True, haunted by his abandonment of Lani Guinier (and other nominees), Clinton did finally stand by Henry Foster, his choice in 1995 to be surgeon general. That episode, however, does not count much in my calculation because the largely ministerial nature of the post limited significantly the political investment at stake in the confirmation struggle. What I am looking for is an instance in which Bill Clinton, with a lot at stake, rallied to the side of black folks in such a way as to justify the current assertions of loyalty and gratitude being voiced on his behalf by blacks impressed with his record in terms of racial politics. I see no such episode in Clinton's record, though the possibilities for generating these opportunities were (and remain) all too plentiful.

A constant refrain articulated by some African-American Clinton loyalists is that their support is attributable in part to a virtue nourished by a distinctive racial history and culture. They say, as noted above, that blacks are "a forgiving people." Racial generalizations of this sort are a hazardous business, for many reasons. But it is probably true that in certain precincts of African-American political culture a distinctive tolerance does exist for leaders, like Clinton, who are perceived to have been good race men and who are also perceived to be under attack by forces deemed to be hostile to black Americans. By "distinctive," I simply mean the African-American version of the common reaction of groups to rally around "their own" even when "their own" is decidedly in the wrong. In the same way that many Bostonians of Irish descent rallied around the corrupt James Curley, and many white Alabamians rallied around the racist George Wallace, so, too, did many black Americans rally around the shameless Marion Barry.

The interesting twist in Clinton's case is that in his darkest hour many blacks have adopted him—they have made him "a soul brother" and accorded him the racial kinship typically accorded to black Democratic politicians. The racial boundary-crossing that this assertion of loyalties entails is fine, even moving. The problem is that what some praise as the virtue of forgiveness is really the vice of complacency. Though virtually all of Clinton's prominent black loyalists condemn the sexual affair and attempted cover-up that has now indelibly besmirched his presidency, many do so without real conviction. At the grass roots, even the gesture of condemnation is often absent. Several black Clinton enthusiasts with whom I have argued defend their unwillingness to condemn the President's lying on the grounds that "they all do it." But in making that statement we glimpse the real injury that Clinton has caused—a dramatic lowering of the bar of public expectations regarding public authorities.

Forgiveness is a virtue. But so is taking responsibility. Bill Clinton has gotten a lot of political mileage from talking about the virtues of taking personal responsibility for one's actions. When it suited his purposes he declaimed about "playing by the rules." This rhetoric of responsibility has been an important part of his electoral strategy and domestic policy agenda. It has been specifically deployed to convey the message that Clinton is a "new," morally invigorated Democrat who is in touch with the sentiments and aspirations of the white middle-Americans who voted for Reagan and Bush over Mondale and Dukakis. Clinton artfully used that message to show that he can be "tough" on "irresponsible" Amer icans. Clinton's responsibility rhetoric figures prominently, for example, in his insistence on ending welfare as we know it. His responsibility rhetoric also buttresses his stalwart support for capital punishment and a draconian war on drugs. Most members of the Congressional Black Caucus objected strenuously to significant aspects of each of these initiatives because, in their view, these policies burden blacks with a disproportionate and unjustifiable severity.

In each case, though, Clinton pushed their objections aside. He insisted upon making sure that the public understand that he stood for good, old, stern values. Yet as the revelations of the past six months make vividly clear, Clinton himself has played fast and loose in the most reckless manner with settled notions of personal responsibility. This personal failing has had far-reaching public consequences. For one thing, to the extent that Clinton really desires to assist African Americans in a systemic, lasting fashion, the scandal caused by his misconduct has handicapped substantially his ability to do so. That is why for black Americans (like for many Americans) the appropriate response to Bill Clinton is neither gratitude nor admiration but disappointment. Perhaps it was folly to expect great things from him. Tragically, however, his deeply ingrained moral weakness will now delay even modest progressive reforms on the racial front.

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