A Place In the Sun

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C., Jan. 21 -- Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) was giving a dissertation on the subtleties of politics, and the symbolism of the day, telling glorious stories. He was sitting in a booth at the Phillips Seafood restaurant here, intermittently eating chicken wings and mixed nuts, flanked by a posse of opinionated women, by which we mean daughter Angela and wife Emily.

Clyburn, 67, the House majority whip, is the highest-ranking African American in Congress. An important man. But even important men can get their stories interrupted. Which is exactly what happened when Clyburn's face appeared on a flat-screen TV right behind him, as an interview he had given CNN aired.

"Your tie's crooked," Emily huffed.

"Your hat's off, the color," Angela observed, saying the black cap didn't match the hue of his black coat.

Clyburn seemed momentarily dazed. The cap is actually blue, he explained.

Angela just shook her head: "Why do you have a blue hat with a black coat?"

Clyburn, the first African American to be elected to Congress in this state since the late 1890s, is the man of the moment in South Carolina Democratic politics. Not only was he central in persuading national party officials to award an early primary slot to South Carolina, he was instrumental in bringing three Democratic debates to the state -- one last year at his alma mater, South Carolina State University, another last year at The Citadel, and Monday's CNN/Congressional Black Caucus Institute debate here.

Most publicly of late, he has been at the center of an effort to lower the racial temperature in the Democratic contest, speaking to Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and to Bill Clinton, whose campaigning on behalf of his wife has come under criticism from Obama and others who worry about the tone of his critiques.

"Yeah, we talked about it twice," Clyburn said of his conversations with the former president. Clyburn, who has remained neutral in the race, said he was satisfied with Clinton's explanation that he did not intend to inflame, but Clyburn also asked him to "chill out."

"I said, we just have to be careful how we speak and reference things," Clyburn added, noting that the same admonition was given to all the candidates.

That the debate here coincides with the federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, that it includes an African American with a chance to win the party's nomination, that it's co-sponsored by the political training arm of the most prominent group of black elected officials in the nation, was almost more symbolism than Clyburn could digest.

"It's almost too much for one day," he said.

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