The Magazine


Sep 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 03 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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AT HIS PRESS CONFERENCE LAST WEEK, Bill Clinton received one question he clearly relished: Would his current troubles harm his cherished race initiative? No, Clinton answered -- especially given "the response you've seen from some sectors of the American community," which has "reinforced and acknowledged the centrality of this issue to the work of the last six years."

Clinton's words were typically dense, but his meaning, for once, was unmistakable: Black Americans support him strongly. And he is clinging to them as never before.

It is Clinton's most predictable move, really: When he finds himself in a jam, he makes a beeline for his black supporters. They, in turn, provide him the absolution and comfort he seeks. Many black Americans regard him as one of their own, a southern liberal who is steeped in their history. They are skeptical of a legal system that has frequently been unjust to them. They stress the theme of redemption in broken lives. And they suspect that Clinton's predicament is somehow related to his sympathy for them, a sympathy disdained by the white majority.

Says Roger Wilkins, the civil-rights veteran and scholar, "Clinton is a very shrewd character. He knows that his rapport with black people is terrific. He sees how black people react to him -- at church and so forth -- and so he knows that if he goes to see black people, he's going to get a warm bath." Besides which, Clinton has "a habit of using black people as props."

Back in January, only days after Monica Lewinsky was made known to the world, Clinton phoned Jesse Jackson, someone with whom his relations had been testy. Would the reverend come to the White House to watch the Super Bowl? He would. The White House had another problem then, too: No one there could find Betty Currie, the president's secretary and a key participant in the Lewinsky affair. Would Jackson help out? Yes again. He managed to reach Currie and counseled her to adopt a "storm-survival strategy." "Choose prayer over panic," he urged. Small wonder that Clinton adviser Paul Begala would say later, "Jesse Jackson has been as good a friend as we've had in this. Oh, he's been good."

Meanwhile, in those critical first days, black members of Congress were mounting a defense of Clinton, lashing out at his accusers and stiffening the resolve of nervous fellow Democrats. John Lewis -- reminding the country that he had devoted his life to "the principles of justice" -- complained of a "five-year campaign" waged by a Clinton-hating "juggernaut." He dared the president's enemies to defy "the Great Teacher" (Jesus) and "cast the first stone." At Clinton's State of the Union address, black congressmen took care to occupy the aisle seats, the better to cheer the president, embrace him, and pour encouragement into his ear.

And so it went. In March, Clinton journeyed to Africa, taking with him Jackson and Currie. In mid-August, shortly before Clinton faced the grand jury, Jackson made a return visit to the White House, where he huddled with all three Clintons. A week and a half later -- when the public was jeering at the president's disastrous Map Room speech -- Clinton spoke at a black church in Oaks Bluff, Mass., "trying out his lines of contrition," as Wilkins puts it. "The people here understand and feel your pain," Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree assured Clinton. "We're going to the wall with this president," vowed the writer Henry Louis Gates. "We believe in forgiveness and we believe in redemption," said Anita Hill. Afterward, Clinton joined in the singing of "We Shall Overcome."

When independent counsel Kenneth Starr at last submitted his report to Congress, 63 Democrats voted against releasing it before the White House had had a chance to review it. Nearly half of those Democrats were black, acting, Maxine Waters contended, as "fairness cops." (Six members of the black caucus voted in favor of immediate release.) Lewis argued that black congressmen recognized "more than others how this system can discriminate." William J. Jefferson admitted that "we start out discrediting the Starr report and looking at it with a jaundiced eye." Charles Rangel declared that "black communities across the country want us to protect this president." Rangel and his colleague Elijah Cummings were invited to flank Clinton at the president's next Saturday radio address.