I'm disgusted with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Not merely because they played the race card on Barack Obama, but because they've done it before.
It worked to perfection for them in 1992. I saw it up close when I was a part of the Los Angeles Times' political team covering Bill Clinton's successful bid for the White House. Clinton entered the race a decided underdog, backed by a fragile coalition of black believers and disaffected white Reagan Democrats. As we crisscrossed the country, it became increasingly clear how he intended to keep the two disparate constituent groups in his corner: He would send mixed messages. In Southern churches filled with pious African-American worshipers, he sounded like a black Baptist preacher. In rural white communities, he did not hesitate to use racially coded rhetoric.
Early in the campaign, Clinton told a largely white audience that he represented the "new Democrats" who "should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent" victims of crime. Then he interrupted his campaign appearances to fly home to Little Rock, Ark., to demonstrate his willingness to let the execution of mentally retarded Ricky Ray Rector proceed without interruption. Rector's execution allowed Clinton to distance himself from political rival the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had publicly urged Clinton to spare Rector's life. Second, it made him look tough on crime, especially crimes committed by black men on white victims. Together, these acts solidified Clinton as a "new Democrat" in the eyes of white voters.
Then came Sister Souljah.
On a blisteringly hot Saturday in June, I covered a Clinton speech at Jackson's Rainbow Coalition at a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel. Relations between Jackson and Clinton were frosty. The civil rights leader had run unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988. He was withholding his support of Clinton and was toying with the idea of joining forces with third-party hopeful H. Ross Perot.
I didn't realize it immediately, but Clinton had come primed for a fight with Jackson. He brought in the heavy guns for his appearance before some 300 African-Americans. In the media gallery, the candidate's heavy-hitting advisers milled about. Paul Begala, George Stephanopoulos, and James Carville stayed behind the scenes plotting strategy. The fact that all three were there suggested that something big was going on.
Clinton gave a well-received speech that roused the crowd with a full-throated attack on President Bush's policies. Then, in what seemed to all to be an unscripted moment, Clinton said he felt compelled to discuss racism with the audience because, he declared, all Americans must speak out against it.
Then, he turned his full attention to Sister Souljah, a young rapper who had expressed solidarity with the rioters in Los Angeles who attacked white motorists following acquittals in the Rodney King police-beating case. A few days earlier, Sister Souljah had been quoted in a Washington Post profile saying: "I mean if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? … So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?"
The day before Clinton's speech, Sister Souljah had been invited to speak at the Rainbow Coalition forum where Jackson had praised her for contributions to his organization's work. Clinton knew Jackson was vulnerable. "If you took the words 'white' and 'black' and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech," Clinton said, drawing audible gasps in the predominately African-American audience of Jackson supporters. He went on to take notice of her presence at the meeting the day before.
Jackson was embarrassed and outraged. Visibly shaken, he told me, "I do not know why he used this platform to address those issues. It was unnecessary. It was a diversion. … Perhaps he was aiming for an audience that was not here."
Indeed, he was. Suddenly, I understood it perfectly. That's why the team from Little Rock was at the ready. They were there to spin the story for the fat Sunday papers and well-watched talking-head shows.
Knowing that the second day story would be reaction from black leaders to the candidate's comments, I (joined by Gwen Ifill, then of the New York Times) rushed to grab a quote or two from black congressional leaders. I wanted to know if they were as offended by Clinton's comments as Jackson was.
Comparing notes, Ifill and I realized that Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., had made almost identical comments to us. Clinton had given them his talking points in advance, covering himself beautifully.
You don't have to strain to see the parallels.
Faced with the prospect of losing, the Clintons tried to marginalize Obama by making him nothing more than the black people's candidate.
After the results were announced in South Carolina, Bill Clinton added the kicker: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88," Clinton said in a speech on his wife's behalf. "Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here. … Now we go to February 5 when millions of Americans finally get in the act."
See why I'm so disgusted? I know which Americans Clinton is talking about.
Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.