DISAPPEARING ACTS

IF SLICK WILLY WON'T MAKE THE CASE FOR RACIAL JUSTICE, WHO WILL? A NEW TIMES EXCLUSIVE.

Rengers, who is also a media columnist for the Little Rock business weekly, said Clinton has an unfortunate tendency to "hide behind the law" when faced with tough political choices. After Clinton was unexpectedly defeated by Republican S&L executive Frank White in 1980, he commuted the sentences of several prisoners. When he tried to regain the governor's office in the next election, Clinton's "midnight clemencies" became a campaign issue.

"It hurt him politically, so he said, `Okay, I promise I won't do it again,'" Rengers said. "And he hasn't."

on october 1, 1991,two days before he announced his candidacy for president, Clinton held a closed-door meeting with Jesse Jackson. After 77 minutes, the two men emerged, smiling. Jackson told reporters that the rift between the two Democrats--which erupted when Jackson was not allowed to address the Democratic Leadership Council convention earlier in the year--had healed. While Jackson stopped short of endorsing Clinton, many observers have speculated that the Washington shadow senator at least agreed to stay out of the race.

This might help explain the February "open mic" incident, when Clinton, after being incorrectly informed Jackson had endorsed Tom Harkin, angrily called Jackson a "backstabber."

Bill Clinton has long considered Jackson's neutrality a prerequisite to his own presidential aspirations. During the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial race, Clinton said that he couldn't "imagine a scenario" where he would be a candidate for president in 1992. At the time, of course, President Bush was enjoying a popularity that would only be surpassed during the Gulf War. Clinton said he didn't think he understood primary politics well enough to win the Democratic nomination. He wondered if he wasn't "too conservative" to win the nomination anyway.

And he said that a Jackson candidacy would siphon off the black vote and make it impossible for him to win. Were Jackson not in the race, however, Clinton said he thought a candidate who could pull together Robert Kennedy's old coalition, who could unite Reagan Democrats and blacks, would not only have a chance at winning his party's nomination but could beat George Bush.

Clinton didn't have to say that he thought he was that candidate. He obviously believed he could outflank the "divisive" campaign tactics of the GOP, a force in every presidential election since Richard Nixon formulated his "Southern Strategy" in 1968, by bringing together black and white people of modest means. Bill Clinton was confident he had "the race thing" figured out, that in the absence of a Jackson candidacy, he was the natural, default candidate for minority voters.

But when the smoke roiled in Los Angeles, Clinton seemed more concerned about preserving his prized "middle class" than leading the nation. When L.A. burned, he disappeared.

And the Bill Clinton who was once a civil rights activist has not been seen since.

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