Posted Jan. 28, 2008 – Hillary Clinton thought she had it made.
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After eight years of watching a president spend more time embarrassing the American people than he did embracing them, the junior senator from New York had it all figured out: 1.) Play up George W. Bush’s embarrassing presidency; 2.) Emphasize that she was a vital part of the nation’s prosperity of the ’90s; 3.) And parade out her husband in the key races with large Black populations to cajole Black leaders and to remind Black voters that he’s the closest thing to a “Black president” they have ever seen – or ever will see.
How tough could it be? She was widely considered the shoe-in candidate, and she represented an agenda of change, a clear choice from a Republican Party responsible for unraveling many of the advancements ushered in by her husband, Bill.
And she was running against a pool of wannabes who most pundits thought could never pass presidential muster. At the time she entered the fray in late January 2006, the field was crowded with the likes of former Sen. John Edwards (who, as John Kerry’s 2004 running mate represented the most recent Democratic failure); the diminutive Dennis Kucinich (whose big, forward-thinking ideas were undermined by his short stature and protruding ears); Sen. Joe Biden (who had a knack for collapsing from foot-in-mouth disease); former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (whom nobody knew); and Sen. Barack Obama (the “Black” candidate, who was articulate and clean-cut, but surely would never be taken seriously as a presidential contender). There were also a few other names being bantered about as potential candidates – people like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (a Mexican-American, whose candidacy, ridiculously, reminded many people of their fears about “illegal immigration”); Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark (who was smeared with the wacky Waco, Texas, siege of 1993 when the government killed 74 cultists while executing a warrant); and the Rev. Al Sharpton (a great debater who, in many people’s minds, never graduated from his the days of velvet sweatsuits and fervent support for Tawana Brawley). As Clinton no doubt saw it, she would have little trouble proving she was the best choice for the Democratic Party.
And from the Democratic nomination, the White House was just a short step away. She knew she had enough ammunition to obliterate the Republican Party in the general election. Everybody, even some of President Bush’s most loyal subjects, were beginning to acknowledge he had been a disaster, and they were publicly distancing themselves from policies like his unpopular war in Iraq; his push for $477 billion in tax breaks to the top 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans (while the average U.S. citizen was barely making ends meet); his reward to companies that set up overseas and gave American jobs to foreigners; and his failure to ensure that Americans who work hard every day have health care or can afford to send their children to college.
She also banked on the belief that women would flock to support a female candidate who is intelligent, efficient, experienced and doesn’t mind going toe to toe with her male colleagues in the U.S. Senate. Clinton, who entered the race with $14 million in her political war chest, also knew that nobody would be able to raise more money or line up more powerful political endorsements than she. In New York , she corralled a powerful roster of fundraisers and advisers, including financiers Roger Altman, Steven Rattner, Blair W. Effron, Alan Patricof and Maureen White (Rattner’s wife and the former finance director of the Democratic National Committee). She tapped a seemingly never-ending battalion of powerful organizations, women leaders and stalwarts of the Democratic Party, including the National Organization of Women, former Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe, former vice presidential contender Geraldine Ferraro, singer Barbra Streisand and John F. Kennedy, Jr.
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Negro Secret Weapon
And, importantly, the former first lady, who understood the role that African-American voters would play in the election, was certain she could lock up the Black vote. She had served with the Children’s Defense Fund under president and founder Marian Wright Edelman, and is a longtime friend of such Black leaders as Congressional Black Caucus members Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, Kendrick Meek of Florida and Georgia civil rights giant John Lewis. Her host of Black athletes, artists and entertainers, include Magic Johnson and Maya Angelou. But her most important asset was her Negro Secret Weapon: Bill Clinton, the man author Toni Morrison had called America ’s “first Black president.” She and Bill were certain that once he hit the campaign trail it would be game over.
The Obama Factor
But what they didn’t anticipate was that a novice national politician like Obama, would convert her snipes about his lack of political experience into his mantra about the need for a president with fresh, exciting ideas, who is able to build bridges with old enemies and attract the politically complacent to the party. Nobody suspected he could win a lily-White state like Iowa, or that a sizable number of Whites would choose him in New Hampshire, another virtually all-White state, or that a quarter of those who cast a vote for him in a Deep-South state like South Carolina would be White.
But Hillary also didn’t anticipate the visceral reaction that Black folks would have to a series of racially insensitive comments by her and her husband. Her suggestion that Martin Luther King needed President Lyndon Johnson to get the Civil Rights Bill of 1965 through Congress might have seemed innocuous enough, but to the average Black ears, it sounded like a Clinton was dissing the most revered African-American leader in history. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the fact that the young, African-American candidate was beginning to expand his base beyond the expected few Black voters – even competing with Hillary for the White-female vote – was enough to send Bill into a red-faced frenzy. His use of “fairytale” and “kid” in referring to a 46-year-old, Harvard-trained Obama even compelled longtime Clinton friend and adviser Donna Brazile to angrily suggest that the comments were racially “depressing.” And, just a week or so before the South Carolina primary, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolinian and the highest ranking African-American politician in the country, went public with his concerns about Bill Clinton’s choice of words, asking the former president to “chill.” Clyburn had vowed to stay neutral until the Democratic Convention, but he was forced to jump into the mix because of the rancor that Bill Clinton had caused among Black folks.
Clinton Gets His Black Card Revoked
Suddenly the Clintons were beginning to look like that good White friend who is so comfortable around a Black folks that one day he slips up and says, jokingly, “Nigga Puleeze!” It was as if Blacks all over America took a collective sigh and asked, “What did you just say?” Web site message boards and the switchboards of Black talk radio shows lit up across America like it was Christmastime. All of a sudden, African Americans began to take a closer look at the credentials of the so-called “Black president,” and they didn’t like what they saw. While African Americans reaped some of the residual benefits of a booming economy under the Clinton administration, and although the Clintons had plenty of Black friends, were regulars at Black churches and Black conventions, everything wasn’t peachy for Black Americans during Bill’s reign And many popular Black disc jockeys hit the issue hard. Conversations, for example, focused on the fact that:
Polls showed that many African Americans who were undecided began to rally around Obama. But even as pundits and political insiders cautioned Hillary that her husband might be destroying her chance at being president, he ratcheted up his rhetoric. Following Obama’s astounding victory in South Carolina Saturday night, where Obama snatched twice as many votes as Hillary, Bill suggested that it was no great feat, ’cause Jesse Jackson had won South Carolina before – and look what it got him.
When asked in a television interview on Sunday whether she thought her husband had been a bit too fervent during the campaign, Hillary Clinton acknowledged he had. But she noted that the wives of other candidates had also been exuberant advocates for their spouses.
But now, as the Hillary Clinton vies for the 24 states that are up for grabs on Super Tuesday, she had better think about the role that Bill plays, considering that the Clinton juice isn’t nearly as potent as it used to be.