WITH A THROAT raw from marathon campaigning and a CNN camera crew recording his every self-deprecating head bob,Bill Clinton and his retinue arrived in Phoenix last month. His May 8 visit allowed the candidate just enough time to deliver a semi-custom stump speech, clutch a few hundred hands and pick up more than $62,500 at a private Paradise Valley fund raiser before flying back to California that night.
In electoral college terms, there's not much for Clinton to gain in Arizona. No Democrat has carried the state in a presidential election since Harry Truman in 1948, and just days before Clinton's stopover, polls showed the Arkansas governor lagging far behind George Bush and Ross Perot among Arizona voters. In the face of demographic and historic realities, the pragmatic Clinton trimmed back his Arizona schedule, blowing out of town with a fistful of campaign booty.
If the 500 people at the IBEW Hall had expected the candidate to deliver an emotionally charged report from the front lines of the Los Angeles conflagration, they were surely disappointed. Clinton delivered a heat-and-serve homily with all the enthusiasm of a distressed scoutmaster, touching lightly on the social tensions that led to the violence in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict.
"The last thing I want to say is this," Clinton told the crowd, 18 minutes into his 20-minute speech. "We have permitted ourselves to be divided. By race, man against woman, by income, by age, by region--this country is coming apart when it ought to be coming together. That is one of the lessons of Los Angeles. Arizona could send a good signal by adopting a Martin Luther King holiday. We did it at home before the Congress did, and it didn't hurt a bit."
It seemed a tepid, defensive suggestion from a man who has grappled with the politics of race and class throughout his political life. As governor of Arkansas, Clinton cultivated an unrivaled fealty from black voters, routinely winning more than 90 percent of the black vote as he railed against the residual ugliness of the Old South caste system. One would have expected Clinton to react to the Rodney King verdict and its subsequent firestorm with impassioned advocacy--the way his supporter California Congresswoman Maxine Waters did.
But in Arizona, with a black population proportionate to Simi Valley's, the candidate pulled one of his best punches--his genuine empathy with the black working and middle classes--and reduced the problems of race and rights to the inoffensive level of a jeans commercial.
"In my daughter's public school in Little Rock," Clinton said, "children now take that week leading up to the holiday and learn not just about Martin Luther King, but they learn about people of different races and different cultures, and they learn things children didn't learn when I was their age. And they help their parents to see the world in a different way. This is a very important issue, far more important than even the symbolism may seem to indicate--to change the way we live as a people."
Earlier in the week, in Birmingham, Alabama, before crowds peppered with black faces, the candidate had moved beyond such United Colors of Benetton rhetoric to draw an emotional linkage between the Los Angeles riots and the understandable, if not lawless, turmoil that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. Clinton was an undergraduate at Georgetown University when Washington burned, and he reminisced with an Alabama crowd about "driving my car with a big red cross on it down into the inner city, to the churches, where the people who had been burned out of their homes were huddled in church basements waiting for food."
"I remember when Bobby Kennedy marched in Mississippi," Clinton later told New Times, "when he walked through the South Bronx, his going to L.A. I've always believed politics has got to be as much soul as mind. Some things come from the gut."
But Clinton's gut wasn't calling the shots after the Rodney King verdict came down on April 29. His first response, he says, was to wonder if "the verdict was just." But within hours it became clear to Clinton that the King verdict had pushed the community of south-central L.A. beyond critical mass. Clinton demanded law and order, condemned the criminality of the rioters and called for a national day of prayer, gestures that largely failed to penetrate a national consciousness preoccupied with vivid helicopter shots of beatings and thievery. When, after two days of rioting, George Bush finally addressed the nation, the Democratic candidate meekly praised the president, and indicated that were he in Bush's position he would "sign the crime bill."
While Clinton did not tour the riot zone until a week after the King verdict, sources in his campaign say the candidate wanted to fly immediately to L.A. but decided against it after talking to Congresswoman Waters. They say Waters advised the candidate against coming to L.A., partially out of concern for Clinton's safety but primarily because she feared it would make him look like he was attempting to turn the crisis to his political advantage.
That was exactly what Bush's press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and Housing and Urban Development chief Jack Kemp accused Clinton of doing after the candidate visited two black churches in Washington, D.C., and suggested that the Bush administration might learn something from a Clinton "fact-finding" mission.
While Bush disconnected the "loss of life and property" in L.A. from the institutionalized brutality of Daryl Gates' police force, and Vice President Dan Quayle laid the blame for the riots at the feet of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," Fitzwater sought to discredit "Slippery Bill," claiming the Democrat viewed the riots as a "political opportunity." Kemp issued a statement declaring the Clinton campaign had "reached a new low" in attempting to politicize "the tragic situation" in Los Angeles.
In response, Clinton was defensive, pushed off the front pages by his failure to distinguish himself from George Bush's law-and-order rhetoric.
"There's some chance if we come out with an agenda, the current administration will adopt it," Clinton told New Times. "There's some precedent for that in this election. They did that with education reforms, and I think that's a good thing. Maybe, just by going there and just coming up with some things that we can do, we can alter this in a nonpartisan way."
But then the fires were tamped out. White America appeared more alarmed by the violent reaction to the King verdict than the savage inequities that had caused the riots. Along the way, Clinton became more follower than leader. As he parroted Bush's attack on "crime," he faded into the weird background static of the 1992 election, yet another glib Democrat without focus or conviction.
For one brief moment, Bill Clinton had an opportunity to shift national attention from the content of his personal character to the character of America's content--its willingness to put racial justice at the top of the country's domestic agenda.
But the moment passed.
for those who know
him well, Clinton's tepid statements in the wake of the King riots are disappointing.
Janis Lunon Kearney, editor and publisher of Arkansas' largest black newspaper, the Arkansas State-Press, acknowledged Clinton's historic support for civil rights. "Bill Clinton is the best thing ever to happen to black people in this state," said Kearney. While she won't condemn Clinton as wishy-washy in the wake of the King verdict, Kearney believes "he missed his chance to say something strong."
Clinton's political instincts, which drive him to broaden his appeal at every opportunity, caused him to falter while Los Angeles--and other American cities--was burning. Some suggest that Clinton, whose campaign has focused on the "middle class," may have muffled his concern for racial justice for fear of alienating whites who hold little sympathy for urban looters. In doing so, Clinton surrendered the moral authority his civil rights record may have lent him.
"It's too bad because race is the one subject on which Bill Clinton is unreproachable," says Stephen Buel, the editor and co-founder of Spectrum Weekly, a Little Rock-based alternative newspaper. "It's the one issue on which he's consistently enlightened and where he's followed his own heart."
Buel points to Clinton's fearlessness in appointing blacks to positions of responsibility within his administration. Aside from sprinkling blacks across the breadth of state boards, Clinton has appointed blacks to high-profile, policymaking positions. For example, he appointed Dr. Jocelyn Elders, an outspoken liberal and advocate of sex education in schools, to serve as director of the state health department. Likewise, Clinton appointed black businessmen to the directorships of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority and the state's Finance and Administration Department. Clinton has also named blacks to the state's Game and Fish Commission and Highway Department.
But Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, who last month became editorial page editor of the state's largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, disagrees. He says Clinton's appointments have not come at the risk of his popularity, and that the candidate's "disappearance" after the King verdict and subsequent riots was in keeping with his history of avoiding controversy.
"He has substituted patronage for progress," Greenberg said. "We do not have a state civil rights law. We don't have a fair housing law in this state--that would also cost him some popularity. He just dodges and weaves whenever it might cost him something to support civil rights. I don't think appointing black folks to boards and commissions has hurt him. I don't think there's any great groundswell of opposition to black members on these boards and commissions. A state civil rights' bill, a fair-housing law, that would mean that he'd be risking something politically." To others, however, Clinton's appointments matter precisely because in Arkansas black people are effectively disenfranchised from electoral politics. For a Southern state, Arkansas' black population is relatively small, about 16 percent, and concentrated in the state's southern and eastern regions. (The northwest corner of the state, the most prosperous and fastest growing area, is, aside from a few athletes matriculating at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, almost entirely white.)
The racial dynamic is different there, too. Unlike other Southern states, the legacy of slavery has had a relatively minor effect on Arkansas. Since only 3 percent of Arkansas landowners had slaves at the onset of the Civil War, recent tensions between the races have resulted more from economic competition between poor whites and blacks than from a continuation of the plantation system. While white attitudes toward blacks in places like Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia are informed by a certain noblesse oblige, Arkansas stands apart from the South. White racism in Arkansas rarely manifests itself in the "gentle" patronizing of black folkways associated with the stereotypical Southern aristocrat. In Arkansas, racism is more fearful and desperate than condescending.
So Clinton's appointments are meaningful because traditionally Arkansas' politics have demanded that blacks keep their place--that they be compartmentalized and granted power only over one another. As recently as 1987, racial bigotry nearly resulted in the firing of University of Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson. A black man with a flamboyant personality, Richardson was going through a rough spell (his daughter had died of cancer and his team was losing games nearly as often as they won). Failing to fire Richardson, a heavyweight alumni group called the Razorback Club instructed university president Ray Thornton and athletic director Frank Broyles never to hire another black head coach. (Richardson recovered, but he's still the target of coded racist diatribes in the sports pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.)
Similarly, in 1989 a white teacher in the small town of England, Arkansas, defended the segregationist policies of a public swimming pool by saying she felt "uncomfortable around blacks." She drew support from the Ku Klux Klan, a Little Rock radio talk show host and the editorial pages of the Democrat. (Clinton quietly, and with private funds, helped organize a biracial coalition among England high school students after the incident.)
While nearly 600 black Arkansans hold elective office, without exception they represent majority black areas and are presumed to have little influence beyond the "special interest" dictated by their skin. There's no viable black candidate for statewide office, and though recent redrawings of district lines have made it conceivable that a black candidate could be elected to Congress, at least three of the state's four congressional districts seem impenetrably white.
Hope, Arkansas, is the south Arkansas town where Billy Blythe--the boy who was to grow into Bill Clinton--lived his first four years. Hope is fairly typical of small-town life in the South. While an outsider might have trouble distinguishing the working-class-white neighborhoods from their black counterparts, or in distinguishing a qualitative difference between the squalid trailers of "white trash" and the shotgun shacks of poor blacks, there are clear caste boundaries in Hope. The locals know which streets are which and generally keep to their own.
Eldridge and Edith Cassidy, Blythe/Clinton's maternal grandparents with whom he lived while his widowed mother went away to nursing school, ran a general store in a rural area near Hope that was one of the few places where blacks and whites might mingle. The Cassidys extended credit to both whites and blacks alike, and are remembered in the community as somewhat self-righteous social liberals. The uglier term, which still has surprising currency in south Arkansas, is "nigger-lover." The young Clinton heard the term frequently and today he credits his grandparents with developing his moral instinct.
"I know how people are divided," Clinton told New Times. "I've seen it, I grew up with it. If there's anything I feel strongly about, it's this question. We can't let ourselves be torn apart like this."
Clinton acknowledges that the 1957 Central High crisis, when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered National Guard troops to seize Little Rock's high school to prevent nine black students from enrolling, turned him into a civil rights activist. One familiar chapter of the Clinton hagiography has the preteen Billy Blythe instructing his mother on the injustice of American apartheid.
When the future governor was 4 years old, his mother married Roger Clinton and the family moved to the spa town of Hot Springs, a more prosperous village than Hope. Here, the candidate says he developed an affinity for black culture, largely through his exposure to music. A redoubtable tenor saxophonist, Clinton (who legally changed his name when he was 15 in an attempt to soothe family tensions) fell in love with the major chord changes of black gospel, rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. He admits Elvis Presley--the white boy with the black sound--as a hero, claiming that news of Presley's death in 1977 brought him to the brink of tears.
(In 1988, however, when Clinton made his famous Tonight Show appearance to atone for his stupefying 33-minute keynote speech at the Democratic Convention, he elected not to fulfill his rock 'n' roll fantasy, and instead performed Gershwin's "Summertime." "I remember Joe Cocker was on there with me," Clinton said. "I wanted to play with him but I was too scared to askHe had a wildass band, this real scary bass player.")
At Georgetown, Clinton was as well-known as antiwar activist and outspoken supporter of civil rights as class politician. In his now-famous letter explaining his decision not to return to the University of Arkansas and its ROTC program, Clinton wrote:
"I worked for two years in a very minor position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committeefor the opportunity, however small, of working against a war I despised with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America before Vietnam."
Clinton remembers being tremendously affected by John Kennedy--whom Clinton met when he was a 16-year-old high school delegate to a national convention in Washington, D.C.--and the president's younger brother Robert, and Clinton has publicly expressed his desire to re-forge the coalition between the black underclass and white labor that briefly coalesced in support of RFK.
"We have got to stop fighting each other," he said. "For the past 11 years the Republicans have played this [race] game. They're not going to be able to come up with a Willie Horton this time--I know how to handle that. They're not going to be able to turn us against one another--they can't do that to me. Michael Dukakis' candidacy was the best argument in the world for a strong defense--Mike showed what happens when there is unilateral disarmament. You get rolled over. I wrote an answer to the Willie Horton ads that would have had the people screaming for Mike Dukakis. He wouldn't use it. He should have. I won't let them do that to me."
but while clinton's
instincts may be true, even in Arkansas he is vulnerable to charges of racial paternalism and political expediency.
Gordon Morgan, a Clinton supporter and sociology professor who was the first black faculty member at the University of Arkansas, says that while Clinton's appointments have raised the profile of blacks in the state, and for the most part, have gone to highly qualified and effective candidates, people generally remain "suspicious of appointed leadership."
While Morgan doesn't directly blame Clinton for the relative immaturity of Arkansas' homegrown black leadership, he does think that Clinton's system of appointments has contributed to a false feeling among whites that blacks have achieved political parity. While blacks have landed jobs on boards and as department heads, and affirmative action programs have allowed them access to entry-level jobs, they are still underrepresented in the middle layers of the state government.
Clinton's high-profile involvement in the "mainstream" Democratic Leadership Council also troubles many of his supporters in the civil rights community. The DLC was formed by party leaders--most from the South--in the wake of Michael Dukakis' unsuccessful run for the presidency. These Democrats believed if their party was ever to regain the White House it must redirect appeals to the disaffected white middle class--voters who despite traditional Democratic leanings voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980. It was only after Dukakis' disastrous race that Bill Clinton began to call himself a "conservative."
Arkansas State Representative Irma Hunter Brown of Little Rock is among those concerned about Clinton's centrist positioning, and believes that his drift into the conservative wing of the Democratic party, as evidenced by his involvement with the DLC and his rhetoric in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, is politically driven.
"Bill Clinton has done more than anyone else [for blacks in Arkansas]," Brown said. "But I think the real question is `What have you done for me lately?' In many instances, the black community has perhaps received support from the governor's office. It has received unprecedented accessibility, it has received recognition and appointments it had not before."
But, Brown said, Clinton owes a huge political debt to black voters. "And when [at the DLC convention] he starts talking about `quotas,' about the support of capital punishment, and when you start looking at the (state's) lack of support for minority-based small business, then I think you truly have to question whether this commitment is only political."
Bill Walker, another member of the state legislature from Little Rock, is harsher in his judgment of Clinton, though he, too, supports the governor's White House bid.
"I worry that his appointments have dealt too much in symbolism and tokenism," Walker said. "The guys who get these appointments, they're nice guys with reasonably good jobs and they're disconnected from the black community at large. If you analyze where these people live, you'll see they don't live in the black communitythey live in the affluent areas. If you live there, you have no idea what is going on in the neighborhoods. I live in a neighborhood where there is a crack house down the street--every day I see people on the street who need help, who need a job."
Ironically, so does Bill Clinton. The Arkansas governor's mansion is just a few blocks removed from some of the roughest streets in the South, where drive-by shootings are a weekly occurrence and crack cocaine is sold openly. Before he entered the presidential campaign, Clinton would occasionally jog unescorted through the neighborhood, a questionable act for anyone, white or black. Though Clinton possesses a rare ability to move without self-consciousness through the black community, some believe his first principles reside in self-preservation, and see in his adaptability signs of moral pliability. Carrie Rengers, the group coordinator of Amnesty International in Little Rock, says she supports Clinton but is distressed by his pragmatism, particularly when it comes to law and order issues.
"I wish I could have known the 22-old-year Bill Clinton," Rengers said. "The Clinton who opposed the Vietnam War. I know he wouldn't be in favor of the death penalty."
(After a 26-year moratorium, four inmates have been executed during Clinton's tenure as governor. Three of those inmates have been white men, and all were either serial murderers or cop killers. Rickey Ray Rector, the lone black man executed, shot himself in the brain prior to his arrest, effectively lobotomizing himself. Many have argued that Rector did not understand the significance of his execution; he saved a slice of pecan pie from his last meal to "eat later.")
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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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.