MAXWELL:  FRIENDS OF BILL // Why blacks stand by Clinton

10/4/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Many white people, especially conservatives, and the majority of the nation’s leading pundits are confounded that blacks are standing by President Clinton. Polls consistently show that more blacks than whites approve of the way Clinton is handling his job and view him favorably.

Clinton haters are further dismayed that he is more popular among blacks than either the Rev. Jesse Jackson or Gen. Colin Powell. So strong is support for the president among black leaders in Lumberton, N.C., for example, that the local branch of the NAACP has asked members to vote against members of Congress who attack the president, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.

As with the O.J. Simpson verdicts, reponses to the Monica Lewinsky phenomenon explain why blacks and whites continue to shout over a gulf of hatred, mistrust and fear. “Nothing,” writes David K. Shipler in his book, A Nation of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, “tests the nation, or takes the measure of its decency, quite like the rift between black and white.”

Black support of the president is rooted primarily in their perceptions of race and the realities of how they and their forebears have been abused by individuals and by American institutions. Based on his handling of issues important to them, most African-Americans like Clinton and trust him to protect their interests. They see him as an ally in a society hostile to them.

Listen to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a black, describing his constituents’ desire to protect the president. “People . . . say, “Take care of the president,’ ” Lewis told the New York Times. “They don’t want to see him resign. They don’t want to see him impeached. They just want us to leave him alone because there’s this deep feeling in the black community that this president has been there for us.”

Clinton champions policies, such as affirmative action, that are designed to assist blacks. And the economy, which began to expand on his watch, has boosted black employment, home ownership, entrepreneurship and opportunities in education.

Few blacks will forget the president’s historic trip to Africa, where he apologized for slavery. In addition, the overwhelming majority of blacks laud Clinton’s national race initiative, even though many whites, who may never confront the enduring legacy of racism, condemn the effort.

Despite a few early missteps, such as the jettisoning of Lani Guinier’s nomination as attorney general and the firing of Jocelyn Elders as surgeon general, Clinton has appointed more blacks to Cabinet and other posts than anyone else who has ever resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In fact, 13 percent of his appointments are black.

Aside from politics and the economy, many African-Americans see Clinton as a spiritual soul mate. They like his personal style: his savoir-faire and his unpretentiousness in their company. They like the fact that his golfing buddy is a brother, that his personal secretary is a sister, that he invites himself to black churches, that he prays with blacks and sings their songs without using a hymnal. He regularly brings black jazz musicians, rock stars, athletes, children and business owners to the White House.

For these reasons and others, comedian Chris Rock said that Clinton is “the first black president.” The Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said that Clinton “has soul.” After all, The Prez’s instrument of choice is the funky saxophone.

African-Americans have measured the man’s affinity with them. Its meaning? He is egalitarian. He cares about blacks without being patronizing, and he understands that they are genuine underdogs, victims of racism. He understands that, as a member of the majority group, he has a moral obligation to set matters right for those whom his group has abused and still abuses.

And how have blacks fared under recent Republican presidents? Nixon shunned them. Ford did not register either way. Reagan despised blacks. Bush, bowing to instinct and pressure from party wing nuts, ignored them.

Again, Clinton is different. And blacks, who have good reason to distrust a prosecutor, identify with the president’s plight. Many see him as a victim of powerful forces _ independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee, the Christian Right and other fanatical Republican affiliates.

Consider these comments by two black leaders who believe that Clinton’s treatment is unfair:

Harlem U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel: “His support is stronger than ever. The more they beat up on him, the stronger his support will be among the African-American community. African-Americans know what persecution is.”

Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP’s national board: “Instead of starting with the crime and looking for the man, Kenneth Starr started with the man and looked for the crime. . . . If any president has been persecuted, William Jefferson Clinton has been persecuted. Now I’ll agree with you that he has cooperated with his persecution by producing bullets for Ken Starr’s gun, but he has been persecuted.”

Studies show that, as a group, blacks are more religious than whites, which may explain why they are more willing to forgive the president. “Forgiveness,” a black man told the New York Times, “has been a (black) survival technique. We couldn’t survive with . . . pent-up hatred, hostility and fear, so we’ve had to forgive and move on.”

Ironically, many critics of black people’s capacity to forgive Clinton are racists who will not hire blacks, lend them money or rent or sell them property. Clinton’s peccadilloes are less reprehensible than the evils these self-righteous whites commit as a natural part of their daily lives.

African-Americans, then, do not need lectures on character and principle from whites about black support of the president. Blacks are standing by their man _ a person who has been their genuine friend.