Former President Bill Clinton was probably shocked at the storm of rage that he drew back in January with his apparent Jesse Jackson slough off of presumptive Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama's win in the South Carolina Democratic primary. And there was good reason. Midway through his second term, Clinton got higher popularity marks from blacks than Jackson, former Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and Al Sharpton. Everywhere he went in black communities he was mobbed. They ogled him with swooning, adoring, near coming of the Messiah adoring eyes. In a moment of pure runaway rapture or more likely silliness he was even dubbed the "black president."
There is absolutely no public record that Clinton did anything to damp down the black adulation or plead openly to knock off the black president stuff. It was a kid in a candy store dream for him and he reveled with kiddie delight in the near reverence that blacks held him in.
It likely would have stayed that way even when Obama came along. The kicker was Hillary and his over the top, frenzied barnstorm for her. There was nothing wrong with this. He owed her a lot both personally and politically, so a sprint to the barricades to get her the Democratic presidential nomination was appropriate. In fact, the Jackson quip that got him in hot water with blacks initially was not really out of line.
He simply said that Jackson won the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary twice and ran a good campaign in the process. It was a factual and accurate statement. Jackson did win the Democratic primary, actually then it was a caucus, in that state in 1984 and again in 1988 as well as a handful of other states that year. He did it by grabbing most of the black vote. He ran a good campaign to win it, yet he still didn't get the nomination. There was nothing demeaning, disrespectful, or racially offensive in what Clinton said about Jackson, and absolutely nothing that really denigrated Obama. Even Jackson didn't snap at Clinton for the remark. In fact he said that he didn't think what Bill said about him was racist.
If anyone else had made the same comparison it would have likely passed under the media and public radar scope. But it came from Clinton. So the fury of blacks at him soared precisely because of their past admiration of him. His apparent attack on Obama was considered a betrayal by him and not just a political observation or criticism.
Hillary quickly caught the drift and tried to do damage control by apologizing for Bill's apparent racial insensitivity. Clinton might have slid by with a minimal surface wound. But there was Obama. He won the South Carolina primary and he got a fair amount of white votes. This was anything but a Jesse Jackson rerun. When asked about Clinton's comparison of his win to Jackson's, he subtly went for the jugular by curtly dismissing the remark saying that the voter's saw him through a "different lens."
As Obama racked up win after primary win and black Obamamania reached zenith heights, Bill stepped up his Hillary barnstorm. That made him more than just racially suspect to many blacks; it marked him as a racial enemy who threatened to dash their dream of getting not an honorary, but a genuine African-American in the White House.
When Obama was unable to shake Hillary from the contest, it increased Bill's determination to keep Hillary in the hunt. The attacks on him flew hotter and heavier. Black Democrats, including his former pals and allies in the Congressional Black Caucus, accused him of bullying, browbeating and using dirty tactics against Obama. Clinton wisely held his tongue. By then even he caught the drift. But that didn't mean that he was ready to take a vow of racial forgiveness. He still holds a grudge against the former chair of the Caucus, South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn for what he plainly sees as his leading the racial mugging of him.
Obama took the cue and repeatedly rebuked Clinton for ganging up on him. The not so subtle inference was that they were ganging up on him because he was black.
Clinton remained justifiably perplexed by this sharp about face by blacks. He just didn't get it. But a big reason that he was so popular, and dubbed the black president, in reality had little to do with his charm and charisma, and everything to do with the frustration, fatigue and anger of blacks at more than a decade of GOP presidents who thumbed their nose at them as well as black Democrats and civil rights organizations. Clinton was their breath of spring time political fresh air, and they deeply inhaled and exhaled him every chance they got.
That's long past. And Clinton's tepid endorsement of Obama isn't likely to make many blacks restore the title of "black" president to him.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House Middle Passage Press, February 2008).