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.
The day started gently enough, but by night's end the candidates were scrapping, and so were their supporters. The Congressional Black Caucus Institute's debate turned out to be the brawl on the beach. There were so many punches and counterpunches thrown among Clinton, Obama and former senator John Edwards that the thing looked like some kind of political extreme-fighting scene. They argued over consistency, truthfulness and who would be best suited to stand up to the Republican standard-bearer.
At one point, Clinton was booed after she told Obama that it was "very difficult to have a straight-up debate with you because you never take responsibility" for any vote. Edwards, who won his party's primary here in 2004, apparently decided he would no longer sit back and let Clinton and Obama be the main attraction, and jumped in on the skirmishing, mostly tag-teaming with Clinton, a shift for him.
Not that there weren't some light moments in the Palace Theatre. When Obama was asked by CNN correspondent Joe Johns whether he believed, as Toni Morrison once wrote, that Bill Clinton was the first black president, the Illinois senator passed up an opportunity to take a shot. "Well," he said, pausing for effect, before praising Clinton for his "well-earned" relationship with black Americans. But then he added that he would have to "investigate Bill's dancing abilities" and some other stuff before he could accurately judge whether the former president "was a brother."
Early in the day, some real brothers -- and sisters -- attended a King community celebration at the House of Blues. The South Carolina State Choir, clad in black, clapped and pranced and moved the crowd, which included about a dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus, with soulful gospel renditions. Eleven-year-old Monique Howell sang her version of Mariah Carey's "Hero," and a Conway High School senior known as D.J. gave a stirring oratorical performance, telling his elders that he wanted to be remembered "not as the little train who could, but as the big train who would."
When Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), chairman of the caucus, took the stage, she took note of the young people in the audience and asked that the lights be brought up in the dark hall. "I want you to know who we are," she said, "because we want to see some of you take our spot."
She asked the black lawmakers to stand, and she introduced them. The 42-member caucus arguably has never had more power; it now boasts four House committee chairmen and 17 subcommittee chairmen. And in the presidential race, it is split on its choice for a nominee -- with 17 for Obama (himself a member), 16 for Clinton, two for Edwards and seven undecided or publicly neutral.
"It's the maturing of politics in America, where African Americans are now viewed as major players in the process," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and board chairman of the caucus institute that co-sponsored the debate. Thompson said he decided to remain neutral until the debate, but said he plans to announce his candidate choice on Tuesday.
Several of Clinton's caucus supporters were given lofty titles. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) was named a national campaign co-chairman, as was Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio). Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) was named a senior adviser. Some members, regardless of their choice, said they made their decisions based on issues, some based on existing relationships, some on home-state or regional considerations.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), for instance, who is supporting Obama, noted that both Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) had brought Obama in to campaign for them in the closing days when both faced tough competition.
"Who you invite to do last-minute rallies is a poll-tested calculation," Scott said. "Traditionally, we don't invite a lot of people from outside the state to come in and do last-minute rallies. I think of all the candidates, Obama has the best chance of carrying Virginia. I think we've carried it once since Harry Truman. So, in Virginia, he's the strongest candidate."
Clyburn had given his word to state and national party officials that he wouldn't endorse anyone if South Carolina was awarded the first Southern primary. He didn't want to discourage anyone from campaigning here.
"I think all of us who have been outside this process still want to see the day when a woman can be elected president and an African American can be elected president. And I endorse that. And that's where I am."
Sitting in the booth at Phillips Seafood, he couldn't help but think of another time and another election.
"In a strange sort of way, this election reminds me of what was going on in the country in 1960," Clyburn said. "In 1960, there was a lot of energy coming off the college campuses." He recalled also how Richard Nixon was doing well with black voters, and then a shift occurred after John F. Kennedy made a telephone call to Coretta Scott King to show his concern for the jailing of her husband.
Clyburn said he sees a similar shift of black voters away from Clinton to Obama, triggered in part by Sen. Clinton's remarks about Lyndon Johnson's role in getting King's civil rights goals enacted into law. "I don't know whether it was her comments or the debate that followed," Clyburn said.
That said, no chance of Clyburn pledging allegiance to anyone. (Now Emily has, she said, but she's not telling.)
"I've got friends, real good friends, in all of these camps," he said. "I could not be the majority whip if I didn't have unanimous support from my caucus. I couldn't get elected whip if I had a 17-16 split against me."
Myrtle Beach, which, coincidentally, celebrated MLK Day as an official holiday for the first time, couldn't have been more thrilled that the CBC Institute chose to locate its debate here. Mayor John Rhodes couldn't thank Clyburn and his cohorts enough.
"They could have gone anywhere in America, and we're just tickled to death to be the host," Rhodes said in an interview. And then the mayor went into full Myrtle Beach self-promotion:
"Oh, my, we've grown. We're the number two family resort in America. Third-largest resort roomwise in America. We're the seaside golf capital of the United States, with more than 100 golf courses. The Grand Strand has the finest beaches anywhere in America. We got roughly 2,000 places to eat. We welcome the opportunity to get national publicity, expose our community even more, let people know we're able to handle big events."
That's the kind of gratitude that makes Jim Clyburn smile.