Bill Clinton has gotten a lot of mileage out of the notion that he was somehow the nation’s first black president, but that may be coming to an end. The tone he and Hillary have taken when criticizing Barack Obama has begun to generate a reaction among black politicians, and the New York Times reports that the first salvo in return may come soon. Rep. James Clyburn may reverse himself and endorse Obama before the South Carolina primaries after listening to the Clintons in New Hampshire:
Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, said he was rethinking his neutral stance in his state’s presidential primary out of disappointment at comments by Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton that he saw as diminishing the historic role of civil rights activists.
Mr. Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a power in state Democratic politics, put himself on the sidelines more than a year ago to help secure an early primary for South Carolina, saying he wanted to encourage all candidates to take part. But he said recent remarks by the Clintons that he saw as distorting civil rights history could change his mind. …
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Mrs. Clinton said in trying to make the case that her experience should mean more to voters than the uplifting words of Mr. Obama. “It took a president to get it done.” …
Mr. Clyburn, reached for a telephone interview Wednesday during an overseas inspection of port facilities, also voiced frustration with former President Clinton, who described Mr. Obama’s campaign narrative as a fairy tale. While Mr. Clinton was not discussing civil rights at the time and seemed to be referring mainly to Mr. Obama’s stance at the Iraq war, Mr. Clyburn saw the remark as a slap at the image of a black candidate running on a theme of unity and optimism.
Substantively, he has more of a case on Hillary than on Bill. According to Hillary, the civil rights movement made no progress before Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 bill. However, King and many others had already won significant progress before the landmark legislation, and they did so while putting their lives on the line. Some, like Medgar Evers, lost theirs in the struggle before 1964. And while Johnson did sign the legislation, it took a Republican effort in Congress to get the bill past a Democratic filibuster effort led by Robert Byrd, a fact that Hillary’s narrative fails to address at all.
Thematically, however, Clyburn has more of a point. For a couple who brag about their ties to the African-American community, these attacks on Obama seem uncharacteristically tone-deaf. Using terms like “fairy tale” to describe Obama’s call for change and unity may say a lot more about the Clintons than it does about Obama.
It also demonstrates a danger for the Clintons in using their normal attack methods, one that may be a little unfair. Unless they attack Obama’s proposals and avoid anything personal in their negative statements and ads, they will alienate the very community they need in the primaries, and especially in the general election. The ascendancy of Obama has become a point of pride for the black constituency in the Democratic party, and rightly so. It shows that they finally have the influence they thought their support would bring — and anything perceived as an underhanded attempt to diminish it will not endear the Clintons or the Democrats to that constituency.
Unfair? Perhaps, but then again, the Clintons started playing identity politics when they embraced Toni Morrison’s description of Bill as the first black president. Petards can be treacherous devices. (via Memeorandum)
UPDATE: Toni Morrison, not Maya Angelou, as several commenters have pointed out. My apologies to both.