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The Campaign in Black and White

He’s a smart fellow and so Barack Obama surely knew what was in store for him if he ever looked like taking the Democratic nomination away from Hillary Clinton. The Clintons’ relationship with African-Americans has always been starkly instrumental. When he was in trouble with white voters in New Hampshire in 1992 Governor Bill sprinted back to Little Rock to preside over the execution of a mentally retarded black man. To ensure her husband’s victory in his reelection race in 1996 Hillary insisted Bill chop poor mothers–a good slice of them black–off the welfare rolls. Nonetheless many blacks rooted for Bill, absurdly dubbed by Toni Morrison “the first black president” and in the impeachment crisis over Monica Lewinsky they were his most steadfast friends, as Bill recognized when he summoned the Rev Jesse Jackson into the White House to help him pray for forgiveness and redemption.

Other well known landmarks in the Clintons’ relations with blacks include Bill Clinton’s set-up of Sister Souljah and his disgusting treatment of Lani Guinier and Jocelyn Elders. The Clintons reach out when they have no alternative and stab you in the back when it seems marginally to their advantage. They are without doubt among the most unprincipled duos ever to have operated in the upper tiers of American political life.

Obama learned too from Jackson’s fate in 1988 when the Chicago preacher took Iowa by storm and surged on unprecedented victories in a slew of spring primaries.The press ignored the hefty white votes for Jackson. Four years earlier Jackson had been hit with the opportune disclosure (by a black Washington Post reporter) of a private conversation in which Jackson had deprecated New York as “Hymietown”. He spent the rest of the eighties alternately apologizing and complaining correctly that his function was to “bale up” black votes for the white Democratic ticket. In 1988 Jackson got more votes in the primaries, coming in second, than Mondale won in 1984 against Reagan.

So Obama tried to inoculate himself by sticking limpet-like in his early Senate days to Senator Joe Lieberman, Israel’s most rabid advocate in the U.S. Congress. Any black community organizer in Chicago is no stranger to the downside of the American dream but Obama purged his rhetoric of populism or outrage and has levitated on soft cushions of hot air about “change”, thus emulating Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. As Eva Liddell recently pointed out on this site , FDR talked also in vague terms about change and told jobless and starving Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. He was elected and the outgoing Congress rewarded him by repealing prohibition. Americans duly banished fear and welcomed hope by getting legally drunk.

Obama led a charmed life and then he won Iowa. Already in New Hampshire Hillary’s campaign manager Billy Shaheen had warmed up voters by reminding them Obama was unelectable because of his past “drug use” as a pot-smoker and a cokehead. Between the tears that established her femininity Hillary snarled that whereas the black Martin Luther King was a merchant of dreams it took a white president, Lyndon Johnson, to get the Civil Rights bill through Congress. Andrew Cuomo, a prominent New York Democrat, said he was tired of Obama’s “shuck and jive”. The former US senator from Nebraska, Bob Kerrey, hammered home the insinuations that Obama had Husain as a middle name, Muslim family affinities and went to school a madrasseh. Bill Clinton, a career liar, said Obama was a peddler of fairy tales.

Then came the announcement earlier this week of a truce on the growing racial acrimony. This was instantly broken as Bob Johnson, a communications czar, America’s first black billionaire and a big Hillary supporter, stood next to Hillary on a campaign platform in South Carolina and said the Clintons had been fighting for black justice while young Obama was still “doing something in the neighborhood”–i.e., doing drugs behind the schoolyard fence.

Racial decorum is paper-thin at best in America, and already the gloves are half way off. Obama’s home preacher and spiritual counselor, Jeremiah Wright, told a huge and applauding congregation in his church in Chicago that “some argue that blacks should vote for Clinton because her husband was good to us. That’s not true! He did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky.” The Rocky Mountain News excitedly reported that at a stockmen’s gathering in Colorado a speaker had joked that if Obama becomes president it won’t be called the White House any more. So now the press is relaying rodeo banter? Of course this went up on the Drudge site in a matter of seconds.

Now the couple have been locked in grim struggle, in Nevada and most momentously for now in South Carolina, scheduled for January 26. This is called the black primary since it’s the contest most likely, on the Democratic side, to be swayed by the large black vote. Clinton campaign money has been liberally distributed to the all-important black churches whose preachers will be rallying the vote. The Clintons’ instinct is to trash Obama, betting that whatever offense they cause to blacks will abate by the time Hillary has to face a Republican in the fall. Obama has the same problem in reverse. Any angry black talk may help him in the short term in South Carolina but would get him trashed by the Clintons and in the press as “divisive” and explode the vital message that he is safely “above” the racial divide. As the Nevada deadline neared he even invoked Ronald Reagan as a benign and creative force, drawing yelps of reproof from Hillary Clinton on account of Reagan’s antilabor record. As if Clintonism wasn’t the quintessence of antilaborism, as articulated by the Democratic Leadership Council.

It won’t be long before the Clinton campaign circulates some of Rev Wright’s sermons linking Zionism with racism, and brandishes the photo of Mr and Mrs Barack Obama having lunch with the late Edward Said, America’s best known Palestinian. Already they’re trying to link Wright’s church to Louis Farrakhan. Jackson can predict accurately to Obama what will happen next and those speeches praising Senator Joseph Lieberman won’t help. No, a Clinton-Obama ticket is not likely. The Clntons take their fights bitterly and while it may be true that America is ready for a woman president, the notion that it would be similarly receptive to a black president is truly open to challenge.

Milton Wolff in Berkeley

I hope CounterPunchers read Peter Carroll’s absorbing account on our site this weekend of the life of Milton Wolff, last commander of the Lincoln-Washington battalion in the Spanish Civil War, who just died at the age of 92. Milton was a man of great bravery and idealism. I remember him well from the late 1980s when he was a conspicuous figure at meetings and rallies in the Bay Area, opposing the US interventions in Central America supervised by Barck Obama’s new hero, Ronald Reagan. I gave more than one talk at Black Oak Books in Berkeley at which Milton would come up to me in advance and urge me to keep any divisive references to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians off my rhetorical agenda. Maybe he changed his position in the ensuing years, though I somewhat doubt it.

 

 

 

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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