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Bill Clinton, the Jolly Racist

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Over the course of two decades, Alexander Cockburn and I wrote dozens of articles on the political corruption of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their cronies in DC and Arkansas. In many ways, those years represented the golden age of political journalism, with a fresh scandal ripening each month. As Hillary cruises toward the Democratic nomination, if not the White House, it’s time to dig into the Clinton Files and resurrect the stories of sleaze, malfeasance and transgression from that feculent decade. — JSC

If the late Ted Kennedy was quoting Bill Clinton correctly, the former president most certainly was making a racist remark when he said to Kennedy of the black man then battling Mrs Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination: “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.”

The only way Bill Clinton could have wriggled out of that one is to claim that he was actually trying to express to Kennedy his delighted amazement at Obama’s candidacy and at how far America had come in shaking off its racist past. But he didn’t take that tack, and Kennedy, in furiously retailing Clinton’s remark, left no doubt about his opinion that it was a racist put-down by Bubba Clinton.

Clinton reinforced the racist interpretation when he called Kennedy after the senator endorsed Obama and snarled, “the only reason you’re supporting him is because he’s black.”

Clinton had it coming to him. For years he’s coasted along on the black novelist Toni Morrison’s supposed compliment that he was “our first black president.” What Morrison actually wrote in 1998, when Clinton was impeached, was as follows: “Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.” And what Morrison meant, so she said a decade later, was that  “President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. … like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.”

There’s plenty of evidence that in terms of effective politics that Clinton was an appalling bigot. Fighting for political survival amid the Gennifer Flowers sex scandal in the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill raced back from New Hampshire to Arkansas to be present in the governor’s mansion to ensure no last minute hitch occurred in the execution of a mentally retarded black man, Ricky Ray Rector.  Later in the campaign he made a great show of denouncing a rap singer, Sista Souljah.

In office Clinton consistently demonized black teenage mothers, and promoted legislation, on crime and welfare — delightedly backed by Republicans — that impacted blacks with particular savagery. As with Tiger Woods, his sexual rampages appear to have detoured black women, possibly in Clinton’s case because Bill thought that while he might survive a fling with a nice Jewish girl, getting blow jobs in the Oval Office from a black woman would have been immediate political suicide. Among the black men he caused to suffer were the musicians invited to the White House who had to endure his inevitable intrusions with his saxophone, which he played very badly. Imagine Obama, or any other  president, sticking a fiddle under his chin and rushing up to saw away on the instrument amid a White House recital by Itzhak Perlman.

The black men Clinton favored were of unprincipled  character, like Ron Brown and Vernon Jordan. Jesse Jackson was summoned to counsel Clinton, not about improving the lot of the poor, but to publicly  pray with and spiritually guide  the president  out of  the moral darkness of the Lewinsky scandal. (This is an ongoing  duty for which the Rev presumably exacts some form of material quid pro quo, though he may have waived it in Clinton’s case, on the grounds that it was reward enough to be invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at that momentous hour.)  Jackson has similarly counseled beleagured politicians like Trent Lott, the former Republican minority leader of the Senate, who got into bad trouble for saying on Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday that the country would have been better off if the South’s most notorious racist had been running the show. The stricken Lott connected to Jackson via Clinton’s lawyer-fixer Lanny Davis, which shows that in matters of spiritual regeneration there can be found the beauty of bipartisanship – or perhaps a complicated plot to finish off Lott. Maybe through his servant Jesse, the Almighty hinted to Lott that he would be more forgiving if the Mississippi senator resigned from the post of Senate Minority Leader – which Lott duly did.

Of course, Obama has also gone in for Clinton-style grandstanding about blacks to white audiences. Bill and Hillary went after black teenage moms. Obama prefers to talk about the irresponsibility of young black males. Obama hasn’t inflicted quite the same level of damage that Bill supervised against poor blacks generally, but his eagerness to bail out bankers rather than bankrupts has been conspicuous from the getgo. As Kevin Alexander Gray remarked on this site,

“So as wealth, poverty, education and health disparities between blacks and whites grow wider, and as the number of black homeless, jobless and incarcerated increases, there is a host of questions blacks need to find answers to and act on. How do they pursue a political agenda, recognizing that Obama is not the ‘president of black America’ and is unwilling to go to the mat for black Americans or any really progressive policies? …And if Obama is not part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. Right now, he’s the latter.”

It’s always sadly comic to listen to these arguments about decorum. It implies that America is sensitive to issues of race. But the indices of rampant, unchanging racism inscribed in almost every economic statistic put out by the US government proclaim exactly the opposite. Bickering about decorum is a useful red herring.

This column originally ran in the January 2010 edition of CounterPunch magazine.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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