Like many black Southerners, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn found himself caught between loyalty and the potential to make history in the match-up between former First Lady Hillary Clinton and then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. Obama’s upset victory in the 2008 S.C. Democratic Primary set the stage for a famous dust-up between Clyburn and former President Bill Clinton, who accused the congressman of sabotaging his wife’s campaign.
My BlackBerry vibrated, and I looked at my watch. It was 2:15 a.m. on the morning of January 27, 2008. I answered, and after several intermediate conversations, this powerful voice came on the other end: “If you bastards want a fight, you damn well will get one.”
I needed no help identifying that voice.
It was Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States, my longtime political friend who some were calling the country’s “first black president.” Black America, and particularly black South Carolina, had found political refuge in the presidency of this remarkable man.
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Tonight, however, that friendship was being tested. His wife, Hillary, had just suffered a major defeat in South Carolina’s Democratic primary, which was supposed to be a test of black political strength between Sen. Clinton and a charismatic newcomer, Barack Obama. Obama had whipped her, and Bill Clinton wanted me to explain why.
I told him I had pledged neutrality to the rules committee of the Democratic National Committee as a condition of their authorizing a primary in South Carolina, and I had kept that promise. I asked him to tell me why he felt otherwise. He exploded, using the word “bastard” again, and accused me of causing her defeat and injecting race into the contest.
That charge went back to an earlier disagreement we had about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s suggesting that, while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had done an excellent job promoting the issues of civil and voting rights for black people, it took a sensitive president such as Lyndon Baines Johnson to have the resolution of those issues enacted into law. In a New York Times article referencing an interview Mrs. Clinton had with Fox News on Monday, Jan. 5, 2008, she was quoted as saying “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
The article went on to say that Mrs. Clinton thought her experience should mean more to voters than uplifting words by Mr. Obama. “It took a president to get it done,” Mrs. Clinton said.
It was an argument I had heard before while growing up in the South, even from white leaders who supported civil rights reform. It took black leaders to identify problems, but it took white leaders to solve them, they said. I had accepted that argument for a long time; but in 2008 it seemed long outdated, and it was frankly disappointing to hear it from a presidential candidate. When the reporter called to ask my reaction, I did not hold back...
The middle-of-the-night Clinton-Clyburn debate drifted into another area of contention.
Less than a week earlier — on the occasion of the debate in Myrtle Beach five days before the South Carolina primary — I touched another nerve with the former president. I told CNN’s John Roberts that I fully understood Bill Clinton’s standing up for his wife. It’s the thing spouses do. We had gotten word, however, that Hillary had questioned whether she should even contest the South Carolina primary.
She worried for good reason.
Obama’s strength was growing in the state, and it would be a risky undertaking for her. We were also hearing that it was on the advice and assurances of her husband that she entered the South Carolina primary race. President Clinton had apparently counted on his own political clout in the black strongholds of the state to carry the day for his wife. He had used his considerable influence to recruit the lion’s share of political officeholders to his spouse’s team.
But racial pride was trumping political chips and gender equity.
Some political hazards
For all his disappointment at her loss — and whatever feelings he may have had toward me and other Democratic leaders in the state — there were other issues in play.
I told him that being a former president put him in a rather unique and peculiar position. I suggested that he should be careful not to say or do things so divisive that the nomination would be worthless. ...
All this was taking place in a delicate political atmosphere in which South Carolina’s most influential black political leaders — many of whom had stuck by the Democratic Party since before the days of Lyndon Johnson — found themselves torn between a sense of loyalty to Sen. Clinton and a sense of history in the making with Sen. Obama. Friendships were being strained, and at times like that we could have used a little restraint from the candidates and their campaigns.
That’s the signal I intended to send when Roberts asked if I had any advice to offer President Clinton.
Just before going on the air, John and I had been talking about the unseasonably cold weather in Myrtle Beach that January, and — meaning no disrespect — I said in response to John’s question that I would advise the president to “just chill out.”
The comment was carried widely, and it probably sounded a little provocative.
I guess that’s how Bill Clinton took it.
By this time the Clinton-Clyburn debate was getting steamy on both sides. Inevitably the question arose about who played the “race card” first.
I suggested that it had happened a few months earlier with reports that Andrew Young, former United Nations ambassador, had made off-color remarks about rumors of President Clinton having had interracial affairs. The reports of Mr. Young’s comments were unfortunate, the president said, but that Andy had called and apologized for having made them. This time the former president and I agreed, but for only a moment. I exploded.
Maybe a private apology made it OK for President Clinton, but it did not erase the racial aspect that was already in the public arena. By then we were both rhetorically worn out and concluded our conversation with abrupt goodbyes. It was clear that the former president was holding me personally responsible for his wife’s poor showing among South Carolina black voters, and it was also clear that our heated conversation had not changed his mind.
As we hung up, my wife, Emily, was stirring fitfully and eventually asked me about the spirited conversation that had awakened her. When I told her it was Bill Clinton and that he was accusing me of sabotaging his wife’s campaign in South Carolina, she asked a question she had never asked before in more than 47 years of marriage.
“Clyburn,” she asked, “how did you vote in this primary?”
It was quite a question. But, given the weightiness of the previous half-hour’s conversation, I was prepared. I looked at Emily, took a deep breath and said, “How could I ever look in the faces of our children and grandchildren had I not voted for Barack Obama?”
In my entire adult life in one of the nation’s most racially conscious and sensitive states, I had rarely felt such certainty in a decision I had made. For once my heart, my soul and my mind converged at a moment that was both spontaneous and exhilarating. For all the claims politicians may make about being absolute in their feelings, the fact is that even the best of them leave the field of combat with partial victories and mixed feelings.
Not so that evening. It was life changing. There was even something curiously energizing about being called out in the middle of the night by an angry former president of the United States. Bill Clinton and I were friends, and always would be. I understood how he felt. I had known my share of political defeats and disappointments. We would have time to reconcile, which we did; but not on this night. ...
Venting and then some
It took a while for me to realize that my middle-of-the-night telephone conversation with Bill Clinton was not just an exercise in venting for the former president.
He meant what he said about a fight.
The next morning when I turned on the television news, the magnitude of it all began to hit me. There was President Clinton, making his comparison of Obama’s South Carolina primary victory with that of Jesse Jackson’s caucus victory 20 years earlier: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.”
I have a world of respect for Jesse Jackson and much of the work he has done. He was a significant influence in the campaigns of 1984 and 1988, and he did run good campaigns. But he was never a front-runner, and his candidacy never reached the level attained by Obama.
With his comments, it seemed to me that President Clinton was trying to downplay the magnitude of Obama’s South Carolina victory and make it sound like a “black Southern event,” thereby minimizing it somehow in the cosmic national Democratic perspective. President Clinton was trying hard to control the damage from what had been as much his loss in South Carolina as that of his wife.
Then I looked at the video a little more closely.
President Clinton had chosen not just any setting for his television interview and the dismissive Jesse Jackson statement. He was standing at the Meadowlake Precinct in Columbia, less than five minutes from my home.
This was no accident or random choice of locations. Bill Clinton wasn’t just defining his wife’s loss in South Carolina as a “black political event,” he was defining it as a “Jim Clyburn black Southern event.”
So this is what he meant when he said he’d show us a fight.
I wasn’t much for tying on the gloves in public, particularly against a former president who was about as good a politician and as tough an infighter as I had ever known. But this was getting downright personal. ...
I didn’t call Bill Clinton in the middle of the night to tell him so, but I concluded that Obama’s South Carolina victory was a lot more than just another “black Southern event.” ...
Obama had proved that he was not too black for white voters in Iowa and not too white for black voters in South Carolina.
Excerpts this week in The State
Thursday: It’s 2:15 a.m. and a former president of the United States is on the phone – and very angry.
Excerpted from the forthcoming book, “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black,” by James E. Clyburn, to be published May 1, 2014, by the University of South Carolina Press in Columbia. Used with the permission of the publisher.