Who is Bill Clinton?
Bill Clinton is a white man.
Why is Bill Clinton in the news today?
Bill Clinton is a white man who happened to be president of the United States from 1992 to 2000. His wife, Hillary Clinton, a white woman, is running for president now. Bill Clinton was a popular president and remains very popular with quite a few people.
Naturally, his wife would seem to want to take advantage of that, so he’s done some work on her behalf. On Thursday, while delivering a talk to “help” his wife’s campaign, he was interrupted by some Black Lives Matter protesters who demanded that he address his infamous crime bill, generally regarded today as one of the main culprits behind the disproportionate imprisonment of black Americans. (And also a bill recently denounced by his wife.)
Bill Clinton replied by shouting down the protesters, circling the “superpredator” wagons and spouting some gobbledygook about how African black lives matter, too. It was so bad it felt intentionally bad. Like an NBA team losing games on purpose to have a better chance in the draft lottery. Or going to a performance-art installation called “Whiting While White” at a gallery crawl.
You put “help” in quotations earlier. Is there any particular reason why?
Well, a not-so-far-fetched explanation for Bubba’s meltdown is that, subconsciously, he actually doesn’t want his wife to be president. Michelle Goldberg touched on this Thursday in Slate:
And yet, after all that, once Hillary had lost and Bill Clinton was supporting Obama, the sloppiness ceased and he was back to performing superbly. (Witness, for example, his celebrated speech at the 2008 Democratic convention.) It is somehow only when he is working on his wife’s behalf that he veers into sabotage. What is needed here is probably a shrink, not a neurologist. Either he doesn’t want her to overtake him or he doesn’t want her to repudiate him. Regardless, Hillary should shut him down. She can’t divorce him, but she can fire him.
I see. I’ve also noticed that you’ve made repeated references to both Bill’s and Hillary’s race. Is there any particular reason why?
Ever since Bill Clinton’s emergence on the national stage in the early ’90s, he’s been seen in a favorable light by many black Americans. There are some superficial reasons for this status that have been discussed ad nauseam. His saxophone playing on Arsenio Hall. His relatively humble background—he came from a working-class family and was raised by a single parent—characteristics that endeared him to many black people, who felt this connected him to us. The shameful way certain shameless Republicans treated him, a dynamic that led Toni Morrison to coin him the first black president.
His—and I really, really, really hate this word, but I can’t think of another word that would fit better—swag. Compared to other politicians—particularly other white politicians—he was cool. He was/is equipped with one of the all-time great voices, this low and raspy and inherently intuitive Southern drawl. He carried himself as if he could handle himself and be comfortable anywhere from Salt Lake City to U Street in Washington, D.C.
Also, there were a few, very pragmatic and practical reasons for this affinity. Most notably the political atmosphere in 1992. We’d just finished 12 consecutive years of a Republican White House that either used black Americans as an extended episode of Fear Factor for America (“If you don’t vote for me, you’ll be locked in a glass box with 100,000 Willie Hortons”) or just outright ignored us. Although Clinton wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t them. And he smoked weed.
But he was also a politician. A politician who passed certain crime laws that would have a disproportionately negative effect on black America for a generation. A politician who has reminded us that he’s a white man who happens to be a politician by the language he used to convince America that this bill was necessary, the language he used and uses currently to defend the bill, and the language he used to criticize our current president when he was campaigning against Hillary Clinton in 2008.
So your point is that white politicians are bad?
No. My point is that Bill Clinton has never deserved whichever “honorary black” lauds he’s received. Although he might seem down, when he believes he or his wife is under attack, his default defense is, “I’m a white man and you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
He is not a brother from a lighter mother. Or even our cool white BFF. And, despite how much some of us might have wanted him to be one of those things, he never was. I wouldn’t call him an enemy, either. But not a friend.
What is he, then?
A politician. And it would behoove all of us to remember that.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.