Bill Clinton’s scandals were supposed to end on Jan. 20. But days after leaving office, he was taking hits for his late-night pardon of financier fugitive Marc Rich, and absconding with White House furniture. Congress was threatening to pull the plug on his plans for a pricey New York office suite, and Wall Street firms were cancelling his speaking engagements. Other people might have buckled under pressure and checked themselves into the Bali Hilton just to get away from it all.
But what did Clinton do? He went to Harlem, the capital of black America and, as such, the best place for the scanal-fatigued to find redemption. Harlem didn’t disappoint; it gave Clinton a welcome befitting a war hero. As he strolled the neighborhood, people screamed, “We love you,” and “Touch my hand.” Clinton lunched on Creole cuisine at the Bayou, where a busboy told the Baltimore Sun, “I never wanted Clinton to leave office.”
Clinton’s move to 125th Street was a masterful piece of damage control that obliterated complaints about his office space in Midtown and sent a dual message. To blacks, Clinton once again said, “I feel your pain.” To whites, he said, “I am bad enough to walk streets—albeit with Secret Service in tow—that most of you wouldn’t be caught on at high noon.” If the black community needed more reason to continue its love affair with Clinton, this was it.
It’s not as if Clinton’s reputation in black America was ever in danger. Towards the end of his term, Clinton was viewed favorably by a staggering 83 percent of African Americans. Even in his ignominous departure from office, Clinton’s support among blacks seemed only to increase as it declined elsewhere. Not that there aren’t a few nay-sayers. “But nothing, it seems, is capable of eroding the faith of gullible African Americans in their continued idolization of Clinton,” fumed columnist Gregory Kane in the Baltimore Sun. “Going to Harlem in the midst of his troubles is not a compliment to blacks but an insult.”
Critics point to Clinton’s failures on criminal justice and racial dialogue, along with his meek defense of the poor, as evidence that he is not worthy of such adulation. They wonder how African Americans can back a man who so mildly defended their interests. The answer lies not in federal Washington, but in its municipal host, the District of Columbia, which for 16 years played home to black America’s most recalcitrant mayor, Marion S. Barry Jr.
On paper, their personal histories make Clinton and Barry seem like veritable blood brothers. They have both spent most of their lives running for one office or another. Like Clinton, Barry never forgets a name, and he is a silver-tongued devil whose charm powers are legendary. Clinton’s well-known love of policy is nearly matched by Barry’s exhaustive knowledge of the workings of municipal government—which helps explain why he was so adept at screwing it up.
Both men are from the South and were raised poor by single mothers. Both have had their potentially impressive careers marred by an inability to manage their appetites for lust. And both are the bane of white conservatives and Washington’s elite. Barry was despised by the black upper crust of D.C.’s Gold Coast, which dismissed him as an unsophisticated Bama just as Georgetown socialites snubbed Clinton as trailer trash. Clinton left the country in vastly better shape than Barry left the District, but both have been awarded a moral pass from people who specialize in offering redemption to wayward souls.
Mayor for life
For years, federal prosecutors had been trying to bring down the mayor of D.C. They caught a lot of his friends and administration members, but it wasn’t until 1989, in Barry’s third term, that the FBI finally found something to pin on him. The now-infamous video of Barry smoking crack at the Vista Hotel landed him in a federal prison for a six-month misdemeanor sentence. Barry’s conviction didn’t put an end to the scandals, though. While incarcerated, Barry made the evening news when a female visitor gave him oral sex—right in the middle of a room full of people.
In 1991, when Barry was released, he was greeted by a cheering crowd that ushered him on board a yellow school bus and escorted him back to Chocolate City. Still, Barry returned to D.C. flat broke and unemployed. His wife had left him, and most of establishment Washington reviled him. So what did he do? Barry sought refuge in Anacostia, D.C.’s Harlem, a neighborhood nearly 98 percent black and 100 percent poor. No one who knew him was surprised when he geared up to run for office. In 1992, Barry won a seat on the city council in a landslide. Two years later, he married a bossy nails woman who kept him on the straight and narrow and swept into office for a remarkable fourth term as mayor.
Barry ran on a “redemption campaign,” promising to redeem himself and set the city right. Those words, though, carried no weight with Congress, which stipped Barry of most mayoral duties just months into his term. It took some arm-twisting from friends and complications from prostate cancer to keep him from running for a fifth term in 1998. Yet even after he had created scandal after scandal and driven the city off the pier into a sea of red ink, Barry had poll numbers showing he would win by a 2-to-1 margin.
For years, critics questioned how D.C’s majority black population could stand by the mayor, but Barry’s national critics underestimated the ugly history that existed between black Washington and Congress.
Barry built his machine by showing affection for people accustomed to being ignored by Washington power-brokers. When elected, Barry opened up the corridors of power to people who had been little more than serfs. He created a $15 million job program that guaranteed employment to every youth in the city. And though many of them resented him, Barry even did right by the black middle class; by 1989, 40 percent of all city business went to minority contractors.
Barry’s real power, though, lay in his ability to rile up the white power-brokers on Capitol Hill. The denunciations that inevitably followed Barry’s “rape of democracy” rhetoric only added to his reputation as the rebel refusing to dance to the tyrant’s tune. The fact that many of Barry’s harshest critics were people who never were seen as friends of black people (George Will, Lauch Faircloth) virtually assured Barry’s invincibility. Black Washington would never drive Barry from power because it knew that the same people who hated Barry hated it, too.
Black like Bill
There is a long and storied history of men of dubious repute finding acquittal in the black community. Often this is because of a deep resume of political activism. Adam Clayton Powell’s womanizing never threatened his mastery of Harlem. The FBI managed to record the most intimate details of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philandering, yet to this day, many black Americans dismiss King’s extramarital lapses as a hoax conspired by his enemies. When Barry was caught on tape smoking crack, many African-American men in Washington began sporting T-shirts exclaiming, “The bitch set him up.” The story of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, with his love child and illicit payments to his mistress, is the most recent installment in these chronicles.
Even men of negligible political significance have found the black community a welcome haven. O.J. Simpson spent his entire professional life ducking black people and trying to ingratiate himself with whites. But when he was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife, you would have thought black America had won the lottery. After Mike Tyson was accused of rape, he received the backing of the National Baptist Convention USA, the largest black organization in the world. It mattered little that the woman Tyson was later convicted of raping was a black Baptist Sunday school teacher.
Tyson and Simpson showed that neither psychological instability nor outright rejection of black America could curb its loyalties to its prodigal sons. But Clinton trumps all comers. He is the first white person to gain entry into black America’s house of repentant sinners.
While I am in a small minority, especially in black America, I have never bought into this image of Clinton. I was deeply disappointed with his record in the criminal justice arena, where blacks have been disproportionately affected by the prison boom that occured on his watch and left one out of every three black men without the right to vote. Most of Clinton’s attempts at racial conciliation seemed to me little more than television crusades—a perception only compounded by his January New York Times column urging Bush to implement all the things he failed to do, such as equalizing the penalties for crack and powder cocaine possession.
“Clinton talked a good game, but when the rubber hit the road, he would flinch. But he did it in ways black people couldn’t see very easily,” says George Mason University professor Roger Wilkins.
Little of this, though, affected black public opinion, which was shaped by more potent symbols. Clinton installed a record number of African Americans in his cabinet and spoke about race with a frankness that black America was not used to hearing from a white person, much less the head of the free world. Clinton’s tour of Africa and subsequent apology for the epoch of European colonization and enslavement may have been half-hearted, but they were much more than black people had ever seen from a white person in power.
Clinton’s economic policies were also a boon for African Americans, whose median income reached an all-time high during his administration, even as poverty among blacks plummeted thanks in large part to his increases in the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
But Clinton’s true appeal lay in his ability to raise the blood temperature of white conservatives. Every time Bob Novak harrumphed on CNN, or Dan Burton dismissed Clinton as a scumbag, black America invoked the “enemy of my enemy” formula and deduced that Clinton must be doing something right.
Moreover, Clinton was the first president who seemed truly comfortable around African Americans. Wilkins says, “I have never seen another president—as a matter of fact, I have seen very few white people who are as at ease with black people as him. He genuinely likes black people, and blacks can sense that. And there is a part of him that seems genuinely interested in achieving equality in America.”
Less appreciated, however, is the way Clinton meshes with some of the unseemly aspects of black identity. In 1998, when Toni Morrison asserted that Clinton was “our first black president,” she was roundly—and rightly—blasted for invoking an assortment of stereotypes to bolster her argument. Yet there is a place in African-American iconography for men like Bill Clinton.
Pimps in the Pulpit
In many ways, African-American culture celebrates scoundrels. The glorification of drug dealers is not the result of hip-hop as much as its heritage. Before gangsta rap, there were blaxsploitation flicks making heroic legends out of criminals. Before that, there were the toasts, African-American oral poetry that celebrated the hustler. The way Clinton manages to outslick his adversaries, smooth-talk his constituents, and womanize while he’s at it puts him squarely in a celebrated African-American tradition of tricksters and players.
Even in the apolitical world of hip-hop, Clinton has become a sort of folk hero. In rapper Tash’s ode to marijuana, “Smokefest 98,” the prelude begins with a Clinton imitator phoning Tash at his home. After Clinton informs Tash that it is “the big Bill,” the rapper responds with a collegial, “Wassup Bill!” Clinton tells Tash that he’s dealing with “this shit with Monica,” but he’s caught a few of Tash’s videos and can’t wait to hear some of the rapper’s “new joints.” “Whassup with that D.C. smoke?” asks Tash, inquiring about the quality of Washington’s marijuana. “This shit will rip the top of your head off, I’m telling you,” responds Clinton.
Clinton’s qualification for the African-American rogues gallery has earned him a few choice honorifics rarely bestowed on white people. In private conversations among blacks, Clinton is ghetto, a nigga (not nigger, mind you)—terms that say: He is one of us. The way Clinton straight-housed official White House furniture only adds credence to the description. In the eyes of black America, Clinton is Pimping Sam gone white trash, or Shine holding court in the White House. After all, not even Marion Barry could top getting a blow job in the Oval Office.
Of course, cultural politics would hardly be as relevant without the defining force in African-American life: racism. Clinton is a direct beneficiary of two centuries of chief executives who acknowldeged blacks only when forced to. It’s not so much that we love Clinton; we just love the fact that someone powerful finally feels our pain.
Like Barry, Clinton’s biggest asset in black America is his enemy list. Eight years of special prosecutors and congressional probes into largely bogus allegations against Clinton put him in good company in black America. So long as African Americans see Clinton as a victim of witch hunts orchestrated by racist Republicans, the former president will continue stopping traffic in Harlem.
|Ta-Nehisi Coates writes frequently on race and African-American cultural issues.|
|Ta-Nehisi Coates writes frequently on race and African-American cultural issues.|