Blacks' bond with Clinton paid off

September 27, 1998|By Paul Delaney

A GROUP of very successful African Americans sat poolside in the backyard of a prominent Washington, D.C., lawyer arguing the topic of the year: Starr vs. Clinton. Among them were doctors, lawyers, journalists and other professionals, females and males.

Nearly all found the president's behavior despicable. The more tolerant ones were concerned about his clumsiness and taste. There were snickers and snide comments, high and low fives and elbow-to-the-ribs laughter.

But they were all forgiving, consistent with all poll findings for black Americans up and down the socioeconomic scale. This situation leaves many whites perplexed. But it's not so puzzling.

Never, ever let it be said that we are not a forgiving people. The Armenians have not forgiven the Turks. Wagner's fine music is still not played in Israel, and Jews everywhere will never forgive Hitler.

Forgiving nature

But we forgive President Clinton. We forgive the Rev. Henry Lyons, the disgraced leader of the largest group of black churchgoers, the National Baptist Convention, USA. We forgave Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace -- at least more of us than should have.

"If we didn't have the capacity to forgive, we could hardly have lived in this country with white folks," Chicago newspaper columnist Vernon Jarrett told ABC News.

First, George Wallace. He was a miserable figure as he pulled himself before almost any black audience in Alabama that would listen to him offer yet another apology. (You thought Mr. Clinton overdid the mea culpa bit.) Much of it was staged, including the appearance, for photo op purposes, of a black woman in a red dress and red hat to enthusiastically embrace Mr. Wallace, tears flowing, declaring, "I forgive you." (You think the president puts on award-winning performances! It worked every time.)

But I always suspected that much of the forgiving was pro forma, similar to all those guys who turn to each other and say "I love you" at Promise Keepers gatherings. (By the way, where are all those guys now?). I was never cynical enough to accept the malicious absolution suggestion of the late sage, Moms Mabley, that you should always say something good about the death of even a very bad person: "He's dead, good!"

I think most blacks will let Mr. Wallace rest in peace and deal with his sins in the afterlife. Most of us are philosophical about it. After Mr. Wallace's recent death, an 87-year-old black man in Birmingham was quoted by the New York Times as saying, "He did what he did to stay on the good side of white people. He did it to keep his job. I forgive him."

Regarding Starr vs. Clinton, Orlando Patterson, the Harvard sociologist, said the reason African Americans support the president, "in spite of his having done so little for them, is that their history has been one long violation of their privacy." In fact, the debate poolside turned on how much or how little Mr. Clinton had done. Most agreed that, regardless, things would not have gone nearly as well under the Republicans.

And the feelings are strong, as Mr. Jarrett's comment indicated. Blacks will take a tainted and injured Mr. Clinton over just about any Republican one can name. Two weeks ago, it was fitting that as the overwhelmingly white and very conservative Christian Coalition met in Washington, castigating the president and demanding his removal, the Congressional Black Caucus was conducting a love fest there with the first family.

A natural choice

Given a choice, African Americans will select the Clintons and Democrats over Christian Coalition members and their allies, such as Sens. Trent Lott, Jesse Helms and Phil Gramm, and Reps. Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. Blacks are convinced that those politicians do not have the best interests of non-whites on their agenda; their coalition constituents would not tolerate it.

A Washington minister was quoted in the Washington Post: "Our president, Bill Clinton, has lied to us. Now, are we supposed to forgive the president for lying to us? Yes, we are."

For a group of black teen-agers, in another Post article, it was not a matter of forgiving, they found nothing to forgive. His failures are private and to be expected. They saw Monica Lewinsky as a spoiled rich girl craving attention from the most powerful man in the world.

"We'll get over it . . . We're mature about these things," one youngster remarked.

Mr. Clinton was forgiven sometime ago by the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and T. D. Jakes and other prominent leaders. But, politically, the president made the connection to his non-white constituency long ago.

However, he sometimes feels too comfortable with blacks, thinking that he is family enough to chide and lecture; for example, criticizing Sister Souljah when they were both guests at a gathering of Mr. Jackson's, or overdoing the "first friend" thing with Vernon E. Jordan Jr.

A soul man

Yet, the president is close enough to overcome affronts to Lani Guinier and Joycelyn Elders that many blacks took to heart. He overcame those controversies because of that unique history and relationship with blacks. Mr. Clinton has soul like no 'N president ever, many truly believe.

African Americans realize there may be a heavy price to pay if Mr. Clinton is toppled. But they are willing to chance it because they have little faith in the alternatives.

Paul Delaney is a Baltimore writer.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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