Political flamethrower Bill Clinton transformed himself into supportive husband last week after facing criticism—even revulsion—from black voters and Democratic leaders over racially tinged comments the ex-president made about his wife Hillary's rival, Barack Obama.
In appearances before friendly crowds, Clinton touted his wife's experience and avoided attacking Obama as he had during the South Carolina primary. The good Bill was on display as the campaign tried to assure supporters that Hillary Clinton was, indeed, in control of her campaign—and her voluble husband.
But the fallout from the bad Bill—notably, his comparison of Obama's resounding South Carolina victory to failed presidential contender Jesse Jackson's wins there in the 1980s—continues to dog her while sullying the former president's reputation. And the Clinton campaign's strategic exploitation of the race issue helped push Sen. Edward Kennedy into endorsing Obama.
"Significant damage was done," says Ronald Walters, who heads the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland. The question now is whether the Clintons can rebuild their once strong standing in the black community so that crucial voting bloc will go to the polls in November if Hillary is the nominee. "The Clintons know they have a problem," says one top Democratic strategist. "The black vote is just as important to pulling the Democratic coalition together as the religious right is to the Republicans."
No regrets. But does the Clinton campaign, which has secured the endorsement of at least a dozen high-profile black leaders including Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon, regret playing the race card? Why would it? asks South Carolina civil rights leader Kevin Alexander Gray. "They won." Gray, who managed Jackson's South Carolina run in 1988, argues that it was the Obama campaign's response to the Clintons' race references—including candidate Clinton's suggestion that Martin Luther King Jr. needed President Lyndon Johnson to realize his civil rights dreams—that made it an issue. "Her mention of LBJ was just a trick," Gray says. "I'm not mad with Hillary Clinton on that line; it was the Obama campaign's naivete in following up and arguing that she offended someone. That opened the door for the race games to begin."
Walters says there is time for Hillary Clinton to re-establish her credibility with black voters. "She's going to have to come out of the mainstream Democratic box on urban policy, foreclosures, and economic stimulus—and go beyond Obama's positions," he says. As for her husband, once referred to by author Toni Morrison (who has endorsed Obama) as the nation's "first black president"? He may have a tougher climb. That reference, Gray says, was always insulting to black men. "It's a good thing he's not the black president anymore."