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Clinton's True Loyalists

October 18, 1998|Gerald Horne | Gerald Horne, director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is author of "Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s."

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Why is African American support for the scandal-plagued, impeachment-threatened Bill Clinton so rock solid, hovering steadily in the 90% range?

Comic Chris Rock has an answer: "I view Clinton as the first black president," he told a Vanity Fair interviewer. "He's the most scrutinized man in history, just as a black person would be. Everything he's ever brought up has been second-guessed. He spends a hundred-dollar bill, they hold it up to the light."

Rock may be onto something, but his answer skirts an important element of the fervent and dependable black support for the White House: African American loyalty has not necessarily been reciprocated.

Where to begin? The dissing of Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier and Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders in 1993? A draconian welfare-reform bill that disproportionately affects African American women and children? A crime bill that no doubt will increase the number of blacks behind bars? A retreat from a campaign promise to allow Haitian immigrants into this country soon after his 1992 election?

Certainly, his policies are not the primary reason African Americans overwhelmingly support Clinton in his time of political need. On the other hand, his appointment of many African Americans to government posts has helped to cement his ties to a community that gave him huge majorities in 1992 and 1996.

At the recent annual dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus, Vice President Al Gore had the audience cheering as he read a long list of Cabinet, sub-Cabinet, ambassadorial and other black appointments made by the president. For example, the spouse of one of the president's most articulate defenders, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), is the former ambassador to the Bahamas, a post once reserved for fat-cat campaign donors.

One may be cynical about how--and whether--the six-figure salaries of Clinton's black appointees benefit the African American community, but the point is that this array of instant dignitaries have sons and daughters and relatives and friends who, in turn, comprise a large percentage of the "chattering classes" among blacks.

Similarly, when one surveys the president's entourage at his time of crisis, it is hard not to notice all the melanin-rich faces, from Jesse Jackson ("spiritual advisor") to Vernon E. Jordan Jr. ("first friend") to Betty Currie (personal secretary). Furthermore, among those called before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury were a number of critically placed African Americans, including Larry Cockell (the Secret Service agent in charge of the president's security detail), Cheryl D. Mills (deputy White House counsel) and Jocelyn Jolley (Monica S. Lewinsky's supervisor when she was an intern at the White House).

Lewinsky herself has drawn on the black legal skill that is a hallmark of the nation's capital, retaining Francis D. Carter, her first lawyer, and Nathaniel H. Speights, one of her current lawyers, in her legal battle with Starr. Her mother, Marcia V. Lewis, also chose a black litigator, Billy Martin, to represent her.

Of course, all this African American talent may simply be a case of enlightened self-interest, since about 70% of Starr's grand jury is African American, not to mention presiding U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson. Should there be any criminal trials in Washington flowing from the Lewinsky affair, no doubt the racial composition of the juries will reflect the heavily black city.

One suspects that this demographically coerced imbalance may be why Starr assembled a second grand jury across the river in heavily white Alexandria, Va. To many blacks, his maneuver was eerily similar to the kind of venue shopping that resulted in the first Rodney G. King-beating trail being held in Simi Valley, not downtown L.A.

Starr's prosecutorial team, moreover, is not distinguished by its racial diversity. Nor, for that matter, is the GOP majority in the House, which will vote on Clinton's impeachment. Purely on visual terms, it would be difficult for blacks to root for Starr and company.

Some have suggested that African American loyalty to Clinton stems from blacks' belief in a special Christian notion of forgiveness and their instinctual sympathy for the persecuted, an attitude born of their unique American experience. This view is not without its merits, but its limits seem clear: It's hard to imagine similar black support for a woman leader charged with lying about having oral sex with a man 30 years her junior.

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