Allies

09.05.12

Black DNC Delegates Stick With Bill Clinton

As the ex-president gets ready to speak tonight, African-American delegates tell Allison Samuels it’s not worth holding a grudge over the racially sensitive remarks he made four years ago.

For African-American delegates at the DNC this week, feelings about Bill Clinton can be a bit complicated.

As the still popular Clinton prepares to take the stage for a highly anticipated speech, more than a few black attendees say it’s difficult to forget the harsh and often ugly language of the 2008 campaign, which featured cutting and divisive comments directed towards Barack Obama from Clinton himself as the current president battled Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

A New Yorker article has brought those painful words and memories back to the forefront this week. In it, politics writer Ryan Lizza reports a conversation said to take place between Clinton and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2007, a period in which Clinton was attempting to secure an endorsement for his wife. “A few years ago, this guy [Obama] would have been carrying our bags,” Clinton reportedly told Kennedy.

Most DNC attendees seemed stunned, unfamiliar, and taken aback by the supposed Clinton quote and its implications concerning Obama’s race. But others admit they weren’t so shocked, considering the epic battle being waged between Obama and Hillary Clinton at the time. They say the quote serves as a jolting reminder of how quickly people can change.

Many said that while they may have forgiven Clinton—the man once famously referred to as “the first black president” by author Toni Morrison—they haven’t totally forgotten the hard-core position he took just four years ago.

“I distinctly remember Clinton saying Obama’s run for office was a fairy tale, and I was really insulted by that,” said 76-year old delegate Leon Jeffries from Florence, South Carolina. “I mean I never thought I’d live to see a black man in the White House, but I didn’t need to hear a white man to tell me that. I was a little angry with Clinton for that because I was like, Hey, we helped you get where you are. Don’t insult us now.”

At one point during the 2008 primary campaign, Clinton also dismissed Obama’s win in South Carolina’ as the result of geography, which caused The New York Times to critique the former president’s comments as “perilously close to injecting racial tension” into the conversation.

Clinton’s oft-putting comments and actions during 2008 threatened to derail the popularity he enjoyed among black voters for his entire two terms in the White House—terms that saw him enforce a strict welfare-reform policy and sign into a law a three-strike crime measure. Under that law a felon convicted of violent federal crimes for the third time would be sentenced to life in prison. The law continues to be viewed as particularly harsh and biased towards African-Americans. (Clinton later fought to have crimes such as non-violent drug crimes or purse snatchings removed from the list of “strikes.”)

“I think African-Americans have to choose their battles carefully,” said Democratic delegate George Jefferies of Illinois. “I’m not familiar with this latest statement from Clinton but I figured the other comments he made in 2008 were just talk and ego. Black folk can’t afford to hold grudges too long with people like Clinton. He helped us more than he hurt us and that’s for sure.”

While most African-Americans put their support firmly behind Barack Obama at first sight, many high-profile blacks supported Hillary Clinton until it became clear Obama would take home the nomination. Magic Johnson, Quincy Jones, and BET found Bob Johnson all showed public support for the former first lady in large part because of the relationship they had with the former president.  Last year Johnson told Newsweek: “I have a great relationship with President Clinton and now I have a great one with Obama. The past is the past.”

Indeed, most delegates prefer to think of the Bill Clinton that championed African-American issues throughout his time in Washington and who now appears completely committed to reelecting the first African-American president.

“I know he said some things that weren’t cool, but he’s kinda like my husband you know,” said 47-year-old Macy Jones of Orlando, Florida. “I get mad at him because he says stupid things at times that hurt. But he loves me and I know that. I think Clinton loves black people no matter some of the stupid things he’s said. His actions say more about him, and he’s 100 percent behind Obama now. That’s all that matters to me.”