When it rains, it’s sometimes only a drizzle. Barack Obama basked in a drizzle yesterday, but it probably felt like a downpour to Bill Clinton. First he loses South Carolina — his surrogate was not just defeated, but trounced — and now he learns that he’s not America’s first black president anymore.
Democrats are counting on the Restoration in November, but it’s not yet clear who or what is being restored. If Bill Clinton was once the first black president, Barack Obama would be the new, improved black president. Not too black, not too white, but just right.
We have the word of novelist Toni Morrison, who stunned herself by choosing Mr. Obama over the man she once said is “blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.” But that was then. “I stunned myself when I came to the following conclusion,” she said yesterday in a letter to the senator rendered in purple prose, “that in addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don’t see in other candidates. That something is a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom.” Or at least smarts.
Teddy Kennedy spoke in an even deeper shade of purple: “Through Barack, I believe we will move beyond the politics of fear and personal destruction and unite our country with the politics of common purpose … [and] close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group and straight against gay.”
Implicit in everything said in yesterday’s round of celebrity endorsements was the subtle message of racism rebuked. “If I had made that comparison [of Barack Obama] to Jesse Jackson,” Don Imus said yesterday, “I have a feeling that I’d be talking to Al Sharpton again.” Preacher Al himself told President Bill to “shut up.” Suddenly the nation’s first formerly black president is just another unreconstructed Southern governor. His great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier, after all. Wasn’t Orval Faubus one of his early mentors? (He’s learning how the purveyors of phony piety think.)
Everyone is piling on. Ralph Nader, the Harold Stassen of the minor leagues, scolded the ex-prez for insensitivity to the public nannies and accused him of slighting the Soup Nazis of the agencies regulating food, drugs, automobiles, railroads, banks and just about everybody else. Who knew?
But yesterday was like old times for the Kennedys. Fawning was the pose of the day, and the old senator glowed with the sweet remembrance of wastrel youth. He could afford to, because generations of voters have no remembrance of Camelot and the sentimental drivel that thrived in every newsroom, every faculty lounge. Teddy is remembered, when he is remembered at all, as “that old geezer who threw a girl off a bridge, or whatever.” What’s left of the Kennedy dynasty, which actually produced only half as many presidents as the Bush and the Adams families did, lives only in the film vaults of the History Channel. Family solidarity has been sundered by the passage of time; Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Bobby Kennedy and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, still likes Hillary (if not necessarily Bill). So does her brother, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Endorsements by Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and the American Idol follow next week.
Bill Clinton, who might usefully take Al Sharpton’s pastoral advice to shut up, nevertheless has one of the shrewdest political minds of his time. His assessment of the realities is not lost on the wise heads of his party. Barack Obama won 80 percent or so of the black vote in South Carolina, which in turn was about 60 percent of the Democratic vote. But he won only 25 percent of the white Democrats. The Clintons made their point, a point harsh but nonetheless real.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.
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