South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn stayed publicly neutral during most of the epic 2008 presidential primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
But former President Bill Clinton believed Clyburn was personally responsible for his wife’s 29-point drubbing in the pivotal Palmetto State -- and he let him know it in no uncertain terms.
In a new memoir -- “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black” -- due out this spring, Clyburn recounts how an irate Bill Clinton called him the early morning after the January primary at 2:15 a.m. to take him to task.
“If you bastards want a fight, you damn well will get one,” Clinton thundered.
As Clyburn tells it, the former president phoned to pin blame on the congressman, vent his frustration and seek an explanation on how his wife got whipped so badly.
Clyburn reminded Clinton he had pledged neutrality to the Democratic National Committee as a condition of them authorizing the South Carolina primary.
“I had kept that promise. I asked him to tell me why he felt otherwise. He exploded, used the word ‘bastard’ again, and accused me of causing her defeat and injecting race into the contest,” Clyburn writes.
At the time though, it was the Clintons who were accused of playing racial politics.
Earlier that month, Hillary Clinton seemed to suggest in an interview that President Lyndon Johnson had a more important role in passing the Civil Rights Act than Martin Luther King Jr. -- the implication being that while the civil rights icon’s voice was important, it took a president to pass the landmark legislation.
In a brushback to Clinton, Clyburn told the New York Times it was “disingenuous to suggest which was more important.”
“That episode bothered me a great deal,” he writes.
But the former president was also perturbed about an off-the-cuff comment Clyburn made about him on CNN just five days ahead of the primary, when he said he should “just chill out.”
“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,” Clyburn recalls. “It probably sounded a little provocative. I guess that’s how Bill Clinton took it.”
The conversation between the two political luminaries that night concluded 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,” Clyburn writes.
But that wasn’t the end of the feud.
The next morning, Clinton made his now infamous remark comparing Obama’s South Carolina victory to that of Jesse Jackson’s caucus win twenty years earlier.
“Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ‘84 and ‘88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here,” he said.
Not only did Clyburn interpret the comments as dismissive of Obama’s impressive accomplishment, he felt that again Clinton was opening racial fault lines.
“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,” Clyburn writes.
Clyburn didn’t formally endorse Obama until June, the day before the Montana and South Dakota primaries. He recalls that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had urged him to get on board.
“Do it Jimmy, and do it now,” Richardson said in a phone call.
But in reality, his decision seemed like a foregone conclusion. Clyburn had privately supported Obama back in January, when he voted for him in South Carolina.
“How could I ever look in the faces of our children and grandchildren had I not voted for Barack Obama?,” he told his wife.
Clinton called Clyburn again in March before the Super Tuesday primaries to apologize for his earlier tirade. Still stung by that middle of the night altercation, the congressman did not immediately respond.
“He said he was not going to hang up until I accepted. I accepted halfheartedly, and the phone call ended,” Clyburn writes.
But it wasn’t until late August, after Obama was the nominee, when the two reconciled. They had a small-talk conversation at the funeral of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio. “As is often the case in such matters, it wasn’t what we said, it was the quiet tone of how we said it,” he writes.
In an interview in August, Clyburn said he considered the flare-up with the Clintons mostly water under the bridge, but he also declined to jump on the Hillary Clinton 2016 bandwagon.
“I’ve never endorsed an unannounced candidate for anything and I’m not going to start now,” he said.