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Eye on the Prize

Nor was just the single point scored: there was also considerable secondary gain in showing Mrs. Clinton as “feminine,” a weaker vessel, gossiping with a friend over tea in the sunroom and then retailing the gossip to a new friend—who, in the “unfeminine” role of reporter, could be seen to have taken unfair advantage of the shared confidence, the moment of indiscretion in her man’s defense. The erring but contrite wife could then be firmly but gently “reprimanded” by the presumptive CINC, her husband (“The main point is, she apologized‌.she made a mistake and she’s acknowledged it”): an improved role for both.

What else did we know? We knew that this was a candidate who arrived on the national scene with a quite identifiable set of regional mannerisms and attitudes, the residue of a culture that still placed considerable value on playing sports and taking charge and catting around with one kind of woman and idealizing the other kind. Although one sensed that this cavalier “southernness” was in Governor Clinton’s case less inherited than achieved, and at some cost (“You’re not worth being on the same platform with my wife,” which is what he said to Governor Brown when the latter suggested a possible conflict of interest between Mrs. Clinton’s law firm and the state of Arkansas, seemed so broad as to raise doubts that he really had it down), the rudiments of the style were in place, and they worked to convey the image of a candidate not beholden to the very “special interests” that many voters believed to be receiving undue attention.

Women were one such “special interest,” which presented a delicate problem since the party was increasingly dependent on the support of women who were declaring their intention to vote a single issue, that of choice (the candidate covered this by repeating that he wanted to see abortion made “safe, legal, and rare,” an unarguable but distinctly paternalistic construction); blacks were another, and one about which the candidate claimed an ambiguous regional expertise. “Where I come from we know about race-baiting,” Governor Clinton had said when he announced for the presidency at the Old State House in Little Rock, and in many variations, most of which mentioned “the politics of division,” thereafter. “They’ve used it to divide us for years. I know this tactic well and I’m not going to let them get away with it.” This was generally seen, for example in a New York Newsday editorial, as the candidate “at his most believable,” evidence of his “fidelity to the cause of ending racial divisiveness in America.” Richard Cohen, in The Washington Post, even managed to cite, as “an early indication of why Bill Clinton enjoys such wide support in the black community,” the draft letter, in which the twenty-three-year-old Clinton had told Colonel Holmes that his opposition to the Vietnam war had plumbed “a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America.”

Yet there remained an odd undertone in what Governor Clinton actually said on this subject: the “race-baiting” about which he claimed the special southern knowledge, for example, worked more than one way: “racebaiting” was what Governor Clinton accused Senator Tsongas of doing, after Tsongas ran commercials in the South showing the film on which Governor Clinton, unaware that a camera was running and enraged by a misunderstanding (he had just been told mistakenly that Jesse Jackson was endorsing Senator Harkin), spoke of Jackson’s “backstabbing” and “dirty double-crossing.” Similarly, letting “New York be split apart by race” was what Governor Clinton accused Governor Brown of doing when the Clinton campaign wanted to remind New York primary voters that Brown had named Jesse Jackson as his choice for vice-president. There was often this chance, when Governor Clinton spoke about race, to hear what he very clearly said and yet to understand it quite another way; the “them” who would not be allowed to “get away with it,” for example, were clearly those who practiced “the politics of division,” yet “the politics of division” itself remained, like “race-baiting,” open to conflicting interpretation: it has been within memory the contention of large numbers of white Americans that civil rights legislation itself represented the politics of division.

This has not been a sphere in which very many American politicians have known how to talk straight. Susan Estrich, who managed Michael Dukakis’s 1988 campaign, has pointed out (in Minority Party: Why Democrats Face Defeat in 1992 and Beyond by Peter Brown, the chief political writer for Scripps Howard) that she did not hear voters in the party’s 1988 focus groups say they were “against” blacks. What she did hear, she said, was, “I want to get a decent job, send my kid to a good school.” What was being said, as she saw it, was, “Are you the party that is going to bend over backwards for blacks when the rest of us just want to walk straight?” Although the 1992 candidate told us in the Garden about where he got what he called “my passionate commitment to bringing people together without regard to race” (from his grandfather, who ran a grocery in a black neighborhood and “just made a note of it” when customers couldn’t pay), this was not a campaign that took extraordinary care to leave the impression that it was bending over backward for blacks.

There was the picture, taken the day before the Georgia, Maryland, and Colorado primaries, showing Governor Clinton standing with Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia in front of a formation of mostly black prisoners at the Stone Mountain Correctional Facility, a less than conventional setting in which to make time for photos on the eve of three contested primaries. Senator Tom Harkin had promptly blanketed rural South Carolina with some eighty thousand copies of this Stone Mountain shot (juxtaposed with one of himself with Jesse Jackson), and its explication had for a while been a staple of Jerry Brown’s stump speech: “Two white men and forty black prisoners, what’s he saying? He’s saying we got ‘em under control, folks, don’t worry.”

There was, when Governor Clinton was campaigning in a white Detroit suburb before the Michigan primary, his rather unsettling take on the Bush campaign’s 1988 use of Willie Horton: “This guy runs Willie Horton, scares the living daylights out of people, then cuts back on aid to local prosecutors, cuts back on aid to local law enforcement, cuts back Coast Guard, Customs and Border Patrol funding to intercept drugs.” There was the apparently unmonitored decision, the day after the Illinois and Michigan primaries, to play nine holes of golf, accompanied by at least one television camera crew, at an unintegrated Little Rock country club, a recreational choice so outside the range of normal political behavior that it seemed aber-rational, particularly since the issue was not unfamiliar in Little Rock; a group of twelve Arkansas legislators had a year or so before boycotted an event at another unintegrated local club, and both the Boston Herald and the New York Post had already run stories about Governor Clinton’s honorary memberships in unintegrated Little Rock clubs.

There was the equivocal response to the May riots in Los Angeles (the desirability of “personal responsibility” and “an end to division” remained the unexceptionable but distinctly elusive Clinton position on discontent of all kinds), followed six weeks later by the surgical strike at a Washington meeting of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the Sister Souljah incident.

Sister Souljah had said what she said (“I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying everyday in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?”) not at the Rainbow summit but a month before, to The Washington Post. That Sister Souljah turned up on the program of the Rainbow conference (she had taken part in a panel discussion the day before Governor Clinton was scheduled to speak) was fortuitous, one of those random opportunities by which campaigns live or die: a number of reporters had apparently been told in advance by Clinton aides that Governor Clinton would use his Rainbow speech to demonstrate his “independence” from Jesse Jackson, and the very quotable intemperance of Sister Souljah provided the most logical possible focus for such a demonstration. That this opportunity had been seized was precisely what constituted, for the campaign and its observers, the incident’s “success,” and the candidate’s “strength.”

The extent to which many prominent Democrats perceive their party as hostage to Jesse Jackson is hard to overestimate. I recall being told by a prominent Democrat, one of the party’s 772 “superdelegates,” a category devised to move the control of the nominating process back from the primary electorate to the party leadership, that Jackson’s speech at the 1988 Atlanta convention had been “a disaster” for the party, and had “lost the election for Dukakis.” Duane Garrett, a San Francisco attorney and fund-raiser, told Peter Brown about 1988 in Atlanta that “the key thing that would have helped Dukakis enormously would have been to go to war with Jesse at the convention. Not to be mean-spirited or petty, but to make it clear that Dukakis was the guy in charge.” (A good deal of Governor Clinton’s campaign has been about creating situations in which he could be seen to not do what Dukakis had done. Eleanor Clift, for example, on one of the Sunday morning shows, interpreted “You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife” as a success on the not-Dukakis scale. The candidate, she said, had “needed to pass the Dukakis test, needed to show true strong emotion toward his wife.”) The Sister Souljah incident, in this view, represented a Clinton call for “an end to division” that had at once served to distance him from Jackson and to demonstrate that he was “the guy in charge,” capable of dominating, or “standing up to,” a kind of black anger that many white voters prefer to see as the basis for this country’s racial division.

It was a brilliant coup,” Mary McGrory concluded in The Washington Post. “Clinton didn’t take on Jackson directly. He didn’t pick the fight on a central black concern.” That Sister Souljah herself was a straw target was, then, beside the point, and what he actually said at the Rainbow meeting (he said that her comments in the Post had been “filled with the kind of hatred that you do not honor,” that they were an example of “pointing the finger at one another across racial lines,” and that “we have an obligation, all of us, to call attention to prejudice wherever we see it”) was less important than the coverage of it, and the way in which the candidate capitalized on the coverage: the signal had been sent and he reinforced it, just as he had reinforced his willingness to make “tough choices” by allowing the Arkansas execution of Rickey Ray Rector to proceed by lethal injection forty-eight hours before the Super Bowl Sunday on which Governor and Mrs. Clinton would discuss the adultery question on 60 Minutes. The measures Governor Clinton had apparently taken to avoid the draft were adroitly reframed as another tough choice, a decision to do what he saw as “right” (“I supported the Persian Gulf war because I thought it was right and in our national interest, just as I opposed the Vietnam war because I thought it was wrong and not in our national interest”); this was his commander-in-chief transformation, a mode in which he recently mentioned, as evidence of his ability to handle crises abroad, the several venues, including Honduras, to which he had deployed the Arkansas National Guard.

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