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.

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Philip Martin