In the 1990 Senate campaign in North Carolina, there was one ad and one moment that emerged as iconic. Run by Republican Jesse Helms against Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat, it showed a pair of white hands crumpling a piece of paper. "You needed that job," said the voice-over ominously, "but they had to give it to a minority."
Those white hands now belong to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and their complaint is remarkably similar to that of the man in the ad. The Helms ad was a cri de coeur against affirmative action, or at least that form of it that gave preference in hiring--or presumably college admissions--to nonwhite applicants on the grounds (a) that this made up for generations of prejudice and curtailed opportunities, and (b) that diversity for its own sake was a good in itself.
For decades, people who were so crass as to protest such quotas and take their complaint to court--from Allan Bakke at the University of California-Davis medical school in 1974 to Jennifer Gratz at the University of Michigan in 1995--were reviled by the left and by Democrats, portrayed as the second coming of Simon Legree and instructed to suffer in silence for the greater good of humanity.
Now Bill and Hillary Clinton are finding themselves in those same shoes: She has applied for a job with experience and credentials that she thinks are weightier, and yet many voters seem determined to "give it to a minority" who has not paid his dues. According to the unwritten rules of themselves and their party, the Clintons ought to have shouldered their cross in the name of diversity. Instead, they are playing the race card with a vigor beyond Helms's most extravagant dreams. In their hands and those of their surrogates (including the once well-regarded Bob Kerrey), a gracious and eloquent member of the upper house of the Congress running to be president of all of the people has become a cokehead, a dealer, a Muslim (with possible terrorist leanings), an ally of slumlords, and this year's token black candidate. From the onetime president of black America, the defender-in-chief of quotas and set-asides, this is all unexpected, but then Bill and Hillary Clinton never expected that a walking example of all they professed to admire would come between them and something they thought they deserved.
Diversity based upon merit has much to commend it. But in the suicide phase of their recent history (1968-95), Democrats specialized in thinking up programs that increased the number of nonwhites and women in some occupations and classrooms, but violated ideals of color-blindness and meritocracy, and caused a large number of innocent people a great deal of undeserved pain. One was forced busing, in which children were obliged to travel long distances to bad schools in grim neighborhoods in pursuit of a numerical racial balance. Another was a system of quotas and set-asides that created a favored set of students who were admitted to elite schools with lower grades than those of other applicants who were rejected, of workers who were given promotions over more qualified colleagues, and of businesses which were awarded government contracts despite bids that were higher than those rejected rivals turned in.
It was this last class of programs that were promoted by liberal interest groups and thus by the Clintons, who bought the idea that disappointment or pain for individual people was a small price to pay for the goal of diversity. In 1995, under pressure from an assertive Republican Congress, Clinton vowed of affirmative action to "mend it, not end it," but in fact did neither. "The long-awaited pronouncement on affirmative action was correctly viewed as being more a defense than a critique of the status quo," writes the Politico's John Harris in his book, The Survivor. "As a practical matter, the administration made little effort, except as required by legal challenges, to either mend existing programs or end those that had outlived their usefulness."
In 1997, in search of a legacy, Clinton proposed a national "conversation on race" to last for a year and to showcase his sensitivity and establish his role as a healer. The initiative collapsed in less than a year under the weight of its platitudes (such as seminars on the evil of "unconscious bias") and the announcement by Clinton's chairman, John Hope Franklin, that conversations would be limited to backers of preferences, which rather defeated the point of it all. But before it was over, Clinton embarassed himself at a contentious town meeting in Akron, Ohio, when he suddenly rounded on conservative scholar Abigail Thernstrom and demanded angrily, "Do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or no?"
Unfortunately for Clinton's soundbite (as William F. Buckley among others pointed out), there was no affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell, as he had entered the ROTC program at New York's City College in 1954 and graduated at the top of his class four years later, some seven years before affirmative action was introduced at his college. Later on, "Mr. Powell and several other black colonels received their first stars while I was Secretary of the Army from 1977 to 1981," Clifford Alexander wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times on December 23, 1997. "Colin Powell was like his white fellow generals--no better, no worse. He did not get anything extra. . . . More important, his white colleagues did not get anything extra either. . . . There was no affirmative action program that prompted Colin Powell's promotion to brigadier general in 1978."
Alas, Clinton's concern for preferences and healing did not survive the unlooked-for appearance of an appealing young black man who rose on the merits, and wanted the job being sought by Clinton's wife. Though perhaps his reaction against Obama did not come entirely out of the blue. Late in 1995, when Powell was being mentioned as a possible nominee in the upcoming election, Clinton was enraged at an unfair kind of bias--a preference!--in the treatment being given his possible foe. "He was irritated that Powell had not been held accountable for what Clinton felt was his negligence in the Somalia intervention and indifference to the Bosnia crisis," John Harris wrote. "Clinton was appalled at what seemed to be the patty-cake treatment given to Powell by the same news media that was hazing the president daily. 'They're giving him such a free ride, it's ridiculous,' he complained to [Dick] Morris. 'He comes on TV like a saint, and those white liberal guilty journalists are so awestruck that they won't ask him a damn question,' " he said.
In 2002, when Mississippi's Trent Lott misspoke in the course of a tribute to South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, the onetime segregationist, Clinton lashed out at the entire Republican party. "How can they jump on [Lott] when they're out there repressing," he blustered. "Look at their whole record. He just embarrassed them by saying in Washington what they do on the back roads every day."
Yet in 2008, when Barack Obama emerged as a menace to Hillary Clinton's White House ambitions, Bill (and Hillary) replied in a manner that would have thrilled Theodore Bilbo himself. In no time at all, Clinton was comparing Obama to grievance monger and demagogue Jesse Jackson, saying of Obama's victory over Hillary in South Carolina, "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in '84 and '88. And he ran a good campaign, and Senator Obama's run a good campaign here." Of course Bill Clinton won South Carolina in 1992, but somehow that comparison didn't spring to mind.
Hillary Clinton claimed at the start that her campaign would make history, and it certainly has. The first credible black candidate for president has been slimed, as long forecast, but this time by people within his own party, by the reigning First Couple of blue state America, who, along with their gaggle of hitmen, behaved just as liberals imagine evil Republicans do, but never people like them.
Democrats have accused their own voters of having been racist. The Clinton brand has been tarnished, this time on issues beyond those of private behavior. Some analysts expect black voters to resume their old loyalty if Hillary wins the nomination, and perhaps they are prescient. But in swing states, even minor defections can make a big difference, and independent white voters may be less indulgent. They are famously resistant to race-tinctured sewage, and may be in no mood to forgive.
Bill Clinton now has the "conversation on race" he once tried to instigate but not quite on the terms he proposed. Democrats are enraged, independents are stupefied, and conservatives swing between nausea and sweet vindication at the sight of their recent tormentors now ensnared in their own pious words.
Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is the author, most recently, of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.