Even though he’s had to perform all the usual acts of contrition, tumid with “deep regrets” and “sincere apologies” Harry Reid of Nevada is surely getting a bum rap. A forthcoming campaign book , Game Change, by Time’s Mark Halperin and New York’s John Heilemann, quotes the US Senate’s top Democrat as saying of Obama early in his 2008 president bid, that he was”light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Republicans have gleefully been painting Reid as a racist for the references to skin tone and the use of “Negro” and “dialect”.
Obama is indeed light skinned and there’s nothing wrong with pointing it out. Forty years ago “Negro” was a correct way of describing African Americans. It’s rather quaint now, but not by definition racist, any more than is “dialect.”
On the other hand, 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 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 hasn’t taken 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 Clinton was an appalling bigot. Fighting for political survival amid the Flowers sex scandal in the 1992 presidential campaign he 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, Sister 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 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.
The Republicans are sticking it to Reid to distract attention from the fact that the prime activity of their chief spokesmen at the moment – Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh – is to convey to the general population in as vivid terms as possible, short of putting on white robes and cone hats, that the country’s going to the dogs, prostrating itself before Islamic terror, because a black man is ensconced in the Oval Office. On his radio show Wednesday Limbaugh said the earthquake in Haiti will play right into Obama’s hands by allowing him to play up his “compassionate” and “humanitarian” credentials, and that the President will use this crisis to “boost his credibility with the black community.”
Limbaugh, like many Republicans, thinks that Uncle Sam should be stinting in aid to stricken Haiti: “We’ve already donated to Haiti. It’s called the U.S. income tax.” Pat Robertson, America’s top right-wing Christian, announced on his tv show Wednesday that Haiti’s sufferings were the result of a “pact with the devil” that Haitian rebels made in the 18th century. “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal. And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other. “
The offhand way Robertson said “true story” to the visibly embarrassed young black woman sitting next to him in the 700 Club studio reminded me very much of his fellow Yalie, George Bush Sr., recycling cherished historical nonsense.
Of course Obama has 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. He’s not had time to inflict the 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 recently 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 and whether Reid said something bad or not. 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.
The Golden State is going the way Mesopotamia did at the time of the Abbassids 1,400 years ago, with excessive water use sucking the water tables dry and turning prime farm land into saline desert. From the vantage point of Merced Bill Hatch gives us a pitiless, hugely knowledgeable profile of California’s death plunge, the consequence of political domination of the state by the real estate speculators, acting in concert with big ag “farmers” hawking California’s second most vital resource after air.
As Hatch writes, “The anxiety of the California population, the largest of any state in the country, has created a fertile field for political hysteria. State politics has begun to resemble New Guinea cargo cults, insisting on forcing through infrastructure on more borrowed money in the desperate hope – because our leaders are actually unable to imagine anything else – of more population growth.” They need the population growth – five million since 2000 – since that fuels real estate speculation.
“The odds are better than four to one that by June 1 there will be a medical marijuana law in D.C.” Such is the knowledgeable estimate cited by Fred Gardner in his brilliant overview in the latest newsletter of the marijuana reform movement, one year into the age of Obama. As Gardner makes clear, it’s overwhelming popular support for medical marijuana that is driving reform forward. The tide is sweeping the movement’s reform “leaders” along.
The Goldstone Report has been excoriated by the Israel lobby, denounced by the US Congress and cheered by the left for its unsparing condemnation of Israel’s conduct during its onslaught on Gaza a year ago. But Goldstone insisted as part of his brief that he would equate the actions of the occupied with those of the occupier. This is the premise of his report, and Jennifer Loewenstein describes the consequences of this fatal flaw.
All this, plus Sousan Hammad’s report on the travails of Miss Palestine in this new edition of our newsletter.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at email@example.com