America’s racial divisons are never far from the surface in South Carolina, home to many blacks whose ancestors worked plantations as slaves. African-Americans make up 55 per cent of the Democratic electorate, and they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. Yet he also, be it noted, won as many white male votes in the state as did Hillary Clinton, and he did so with the same inspirational themes of inclusiveness and surmounting America’s divisions that had won over the almost entirely white electorate in Iowa at the start of this long presidential race. It remains true that race could not help but be a factor in South Carolina. For that very reason, Bill Clinton’s resort to the race card was as indefensible as it may prove to have been politically unwise.
In an unprompted remark, he made a referral to a black Democrat candidate in a previous presidential campaign: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in ’84 and ’88. And he ran a good campaign. Obama’s run a good campaign here; he’s run a good campaign everywhere.” The aside was calculated to belittle Mr Obama’s victory, and to sow doubts about his electability.
Mr Clinton, who has waded into his wife’s campaign with all the subtlety of a hippopotamus at feeding time, may have been riled by Mr Obama’s joke that it took two Clintons to match one of him. “Two for one” was a line that worked fine when Mr Clinton ran for the White House back in 1992, but “two against one” plays less well. He may also, as his wife hastened to suggest, have been “sleep deprived” – in which case she should not have left him to give the speech conceding defeat in a race he is not, after all, running. Indeed, his prominence seems to be deterring female voters, who want a female president, not a “co-presidency”. But he had no business playing the Jackson card. The message was this: Jesse Jackson never had a chance of winning the Democratic nomination and Mr Obama’s South Carolina victory should be discounted because he owed it to the colour of his skin.
Which leads us elegantly into:
I never quite understand how the Clintons’ initial exploitation of racism was overlooked the first time around and has been airbrushed from the record since. After falling behind in the New Hampshire primary in 1992, and after being caught lying about the affair with Gennifer Flowers to which he later confessed under oath, Clinton left the campaign trail and flew home to Arkansas to give the maximum publicity to his decision to sign a death warrant for Ricky Ray Rector. Rector was a black inmate on death row who had shot himself in the head after committing a double murder and, instead of dying as a result, had achieved the same effect as a lobotomy would have done. He never understood the charge against him or the sentence. After being served his last meal, he left the pecan pie on the side of the tray, as he told the guards who came to take him to the execution chamber, “for later.” Several police and prison-officer witnesses expressed extreme queasiness at this execution of a gravely impaired man, and the prison chaplain, Dennis Pigman, later resigned from the prison service. The whole dismal and cruel and pathetic story was told by Marshall Frady in a long essay in The New Yorker in 1993 and is also recounted in a chapter titled “Chameleon in Black and White” by your humble servant in his book No One Left To Lie To. For now, I just ask you to imagine what would have been said if a Republican governor, falling in the polls, had gone out of his way to execute a mentally incompetent African-American prisoner.
Or leaf back, if you will, to the New York Times of March 23, 1992, and the jolly headline, “Club Where Clinton Has Golfed Retains Ways of Old South.” Yes indeedy, the Country Club of Little Rock had 500 members, all of them white, and the aspirant candidate had himself photographed there more than once until Jerry Brown made an issue of it. It was then announced by Clinton’s people that “the staff and facilities” at the club were “integrated”–a pretty way of stating that the toilets were cleaned by black Arkansans. Yet all this was forgiven by credulous liberals who were sure that they had discovered a New Democrat who was a Southerner to boot.
Many of these same people do not like it now that they see similar two-faced tactics being employed against “one of their own.” Well, tough. And many of the most prominent and eloquent black columnists–Bob Herbert, Colbert King, Eugene Robinson–are also acting shocked. It’s a bit late. I have to say that Bob Herbert shocked even me by quoting Andrew Young, who said that his pal Clinton was “every bit as black as Barack” because he’d screwed more black chicks. How is Hillary Clinton, or Chelsea Clinton, supposed to feel on hearing that little endorsement? One gets the impression, though, at least from the wife, that anything is OK as long as it works, or even has a chance of working. When Toni Morrison described Clinton as “black” on the basis of his promiscuity and dysfunction and uncertainty about his parentage, she did more than cater to the white racist impression of the African-American male. She tapped into the sort of self-hatred that is evidently more common than we might choose to think. Say what you will about Sen. Obama (and I say that he’s got much more charisma than guts), he is miles above this sort of squalor and has decent manners. Say what you will about the Clintons, you cannot acquit them of having played the race card several times in both directions and of having done so in the most vulgar and unscrupulous fashion. Anyone who thinks that this equals “change” is a fool, and an easily fooled fool at that.
I love that.