Thursday, February 15, 2007

The "honorary soul brother" calls in his markers

This little item ran on the wires the other night: “Two key black political leaders in South Carolina who backed John Edwards in 2004 said Tuesday they were supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.”

So big deal, right? In terms of sex appeal, a couple political endorsements can’t possibly compete with the ongoing cable TV bulletins announcing that Anna Nicole Smith is still dead. Yet this South Carolina story is not a yawner. What it signifies is that Bill Clinton is working the phones backstage, calling in his markers, and demonstrating that he’s the most potent weapon in his wife’s campaign.

No other pol in the Democratic party can match his clout in the black community (author Toni Morrison once said that Bill was America’s “first black president”), and that fact is crucial to understanding why Hillary Clinton will be strongly competitive in the primaries that follow Iowa and New Hampshire. Right now, she and Barack Obama (with Edwards the third wheel) are working that community quite intensively, because they know that blacks will comprise a disproportionate share of the turnout in early states such as South Carolina. Indeed, in 2004, roughly 49 percent of the South Carolina primary vote was African-American.

Obama, on paper at least, can sink roots in the black community by appealing to racial pride (while seeking, of course, to avoid the broader perception that he is merely a “black candidate”). And reports indicate that Obama was trying to recruit those aforementioned South Carolina black leaders. But, in the end, Darrell Jackson (an influential pastor, public relations man, and state senator) and Robert Ford (another state senator) went with the Clintons. Here’s the key reason:

In their world, Obama is a newcomer who hasn’t paid his dues…whereas the Clintons are demigods who have been building relationships with the black community since Bill’s initial bid 15 years ago. Which helps to explain why a January ABC-Washington Post poll found that Hillary Clinton tops Obama among African Americans nationwide by 53 to 27 percent.

And consider the case of those two South Carolina guys: Jackson’s PR firm did work for Bill as far back as 1992; Jackson has also reportedly agreed to a Hillary contract, even though, he says, a rival campaign offered to double Hillary’s offer. And Ford, while trying to decide who to endorse, says he was “swayed in part by a personal call” from Bill, and that “if Bill Clinton calls you, you’re not going to have much choice.” (Some Obama fans are annoyed by this; as a columnist in Obama's home state complained today, Jackson and Ford "are hatin' on a brother who dares to believe anything is possible.")

So why does Bill Clinton carry so much weight - enough, potentially, to trump Obama’s personal story? Why is his appeal so strong among blacks that he seems capable of transferring it to his spouse?

I remember once asking some black leaders about Clinton’s appeal, and here’s what they said: He’s an honorary soul brother, “more personally at ease with black people than any previous president,” in the words of scholar Roger Wilkins, the son of a famed civil rights leader. Secondly, he exudes empathy; as Anthony Dicks, a South Carolina funeral home operator, once told me, “He gave me a warm feeling.” Thirdly, he defended affirmative action and public education, and presided over an economy that posted the lowest black unemployment rate in history. Lastly – and perhaps most importantly – he was hounded by a federal prosecutor during a sex scandal, railroaded by the same kinds of people who went after Martin Luther King.

But to really grasp the depth of black loyalty toward the Clintons, consider this exchange that I had with Chaka Fattah during the late summer of 1998:

Fattah, the Philadelphia congressman who today is running for mayor, spent that August virtually living on cable TV, insisting to the world that Bill Clinton had not conducted an affair with Monica Lewinsky. He was convinced that the charge was false, because Bill had already publicly insisted that it was false. So, on Aug. 6, for example, Fattah told the viewing audience, “Absolutely, I believe the president…he said, ‘Look, there’s been no sexual relationship.’ He said he didn’t do it!”

Well, 11 days after Fattah’s appearance, Clinton changed his tune and told the American people that he did do it. Whereupon I phoned Fattah and asked him whether he felt that Bill had hung him out to dry.

And Fattah cheerfully replied, “Not at all!”

That’s what I call loyalty. Let’s see Obama try to compete with that.