Politics & Policy

Real First Black President

The problem with Hillary's comment is the implied historical analogy.

Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. … It took a president to get it done. — Hillary Clinton, Jan. 7

So she said. And then a fight broke out. That remarkable eruption of racial sensitivities and racial charges lacked coherence, however, because the public argument was about history rather than what was truly offensive — the implied analogy to today.

The principal objection was that Clinton appeared to be disrespecting Martin Luther King Jr., relegating him to mere enabler for Lyndon Johnson.

But it is certainly true that Johnson was the great emancipator, second only to Abraham Lincoln in that respect. This was a function of the times.

King was fighting for black enfranchisement. Until that could be achieved, civil rights legislation could only be enacted by a white president (and a white Congress).

That does not denigrate King. It makes his achievement all the more miraculous — winning a permanent stake in the system for a previously disenfranchised people, having begun with no political cards to play.

In my view, the real problem with Clinton’s statement was the implied historical analogy — that the subordinate position King held in relation to Johnson, a function of the discrimination and disenfranchisement of the time, somehow needs recapitulation today when none of those conditions apply.

The analogy Clinton was implying was obvious: I’m Lyndon Johnson, unlovely doer; he’s Martin Luther King, charismatic dreamer. Vote for me if you want results.

Forty years ago, that arrangement — white president enacting African-American dreams — was necessary because discrimination denied blacks their own autonomous political options. Today, that arrangement — white liberals acting as tribune for blacks in return for their political loyalty — is a demeaning anachronism. That’s what the fury at Hillary was all about, although no one was willing to say so explicitly.

The King-Johnson analogy is dead because the times are radically different. Today an African-American can be in a position to wield the emancipation pen — and everything else that goes along with the presidency: from making foreign policy to renting out the Lincoln Bedroom (if one is so inclined). Why should African-American dreams still have to go through white liberals?

Clinton is no doubt shocked that a simple argument about experience versus inspiration becomes the basis for a charge of racial insensitivity.

She is surprised that the very use of “fairy tale” in reference to Obama’s position on Iraq is taken as a sign of insensitivity, or that any reference to his self-confessed teenage drug use is immediately given racial overtones.

But where, I ask you, do such studied and/or sincere expressions of racial offense come from? From a decades-long campaign of enforced political correctness by an alliance of white liberals and the black civil rights establishment intended to delegitimize and marginalize as racist any criticism of their post-civil rights-era agenda.

Anyone who has ever made a principled argument against affirmative action only to be accused of racism knows exactly how these tactics work.

Or anyone who has merely opposed a more recent agenda item — hate-crimes legislation, for instance — on the grounds that murder is murder and that the laws against it are both venerable and severe. Remember that scurrilous pre-election ad run by the NAACP in 2000 implying that George Bush was indifferent to a dragging death of a black man at the hands of white racists in Texas because he did not support hate crime legislation?

The nation has become inured to the playing of the race card, but “our first black president” (Toni Morrison on Bill Clinton) and his consort are not used to having it played against them.

Bill is annoyed with Obama. As Bill inadvertently let on to Charlie Rose, it has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with entitlement. He had contemplated running in 1988, he confided to Charlie, but decided to wait. Too young, not ready. (A tall tale, highly Clintonian; but that’s another matter.) Now it is Hillary’s turn. The presidency is her due — the ultimate in alimony — and this young upstart refuses to give way.

But telling Obama to wait his turn is a tricky proposition. It sounds patronizing and condescending, awakening the kinds of racial grievances white liberals have spent half a century fanning — only to find themselves now singed in the blowback, much to their public chagrin.

Who says there’s no justice in this world?

(c) 2008, The Washington Post Writers Group

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