It was supposed to be a fairy tale come true for our country. Finally, after more than two centuries it looked like America's most exclusive club just might be ready to admit a woman and an African-American. Only membership benefits at this particular club offer a lot more than access to fabulous golf courses, but access to the most powerful address in our nation. While the club's founders are likely rolling in their graves at the possibility, Club White House (aka The President's Club) has moved closer than ever to admitting members who actually look more like America's increasingly diverse (and increasingly female) population, and less like members from a reunion of Yale's Skull and Bones fraternity. Others before had tried and failed to gain admission. But this year seemed different. It looked like it may actually happen.
But I guess some fairy tales really are just too good to be true.
The two leading contenders for finally breaking through one of America's last great barriers, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, vowed early on not to allow their competition to devolve into yet another sad example of political mudslinging. Well in the last week their sparring has actually sounded more like the verbal equivalent of mud-wrestling. Typically it's hard to pin down exactly "who started it," in this type of situation. After all, when do one's attempts to legitimately "contrast" their record from their opponent officially become full-fledged political warfare? For me the answer is much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's assessment of porn. "I know it when I see it."
In this primary, a line has officially been crossed in the tone, and tenor of the campaign. The line may not be visible, but I knew it when I saw it. And clearly I am not the only one. Congressman James Clyburn, the elder statesman of South Carolina politics recently made it known in the pages of the New York Times that in spite of his initial plans to remain neutral in the primary race, recent comments by former President Clinton and Sen. Clinton have him reconsidering his neutrality.
President Clinton irked Clyburn and some other black Americans with his statement in reference to Obama, "This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." The former President, who was affectionately dubbed "the first black president" by Toni Morrison, quickly worked to clarify his remarks and called in to Al Sharpton's radio show to do so. (Apparently under the mistaken assumption that Al Sharpton's seal of approval is relevant to a majority of black Americans.) He then explained that he was referring to Obama's characterization of his positions on the Iraq War and added for good measure, that "There's nothing fairy tale about his [Obama's] campaign. . . he might win. "I think he's a very impressive man, and he's run a great campaign." As I noted yesterday on CNN, if there is anyone that black Americans are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to, it is the "first black president" and his wife.
But then came the Dr. King debacle. Sen. Clinton, attempting to take the wind out of Barack Obama's King and Kennedy-esque sails, said the following: "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."
Now the Clintons are learning a tough, yet valuable lesson: That there are some things that no white American--even the first black president--gets a free pass on saying. And this happens to be one of them.
While candidate Clinton has worked to explain her remarks in recent days (and has also accused the Obama campaign of trying to inject race into the presidential race, which is odd since she brought it up), the damage has largely been done. And not just damage to the Clinton campaign, but damage to the Democratic Party. After all, part of the fairy tale was the idea of this rainbow coalition working together to make history since everyone is supposed to be on the same side. Now this fairy tale has turned a lot less Disney and a lot more Brothers Grimm.
If Rep. Clyburn endorses Obama, it will be hugely significant, with national implications. Much of the division in the black community between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters has been split along generational lines, with older black elected officials such as Congressman Charles Rangel and Congressman John Lewis supporting Clinton, and younger officials like Mayor Cory Booker and Congressman Artur Davis supporting Obama. If Clyburn were to support Obama, it would send a message to some older African-Americans who are unsure that our country's ready to elect a black president that he thinks we are. It would also signal just how seriously he took the Clintons' recent comments.
If Clinton loses in South Carolina, but even more, if she becomes the nominee and loses the general election, she will look back on this moment as her own Swift Boat veterans ad; the defining moment that sunk her campaign. Only in this case she and her husband were the ones driving the boat. For those who think I'm overstating the possibilities, just ask Mark Green. You may have just asked yourself "Mark who?" which is precisely the point. Mark Green was supposed to be the Mayor of New York City. He was supposed to easily cruise to victory past an unknown billionaire businessman no one had ever heard of. Then two things happened. 9/11 was one of them, but the other was a racially charged controversy in which Green's campaign was accused of disseminating a racially inflammatory flier during the Democratic primary. While Green disavowed the incident (and was cleared of any direct knowledge) he lost a substantial portion of the Latino and black vote in the general election. As a result, he became "Mark who?," and the unknown billionaire businessman became Mike Bloomberg, mayor turned possible presidential candidate.
If the Democrats aren't careful, this once promising presidential fairy tale could have a similar ending and Mike Bloomberg could find himself becoming the accidental crown prince once again.