Black America Feels the Sting of Ex-President's Comments

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

For nearly two decades, Yvette Wider, an African American, adored Bill Clinton, once described by a famous black novelist as the nation's first black president.

But now, after Clinton's "fairy tale" remark about Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in New Hampshire and a statement in South Carolina that Obama had put a political "hit job" on him, Wider said she feels she hardly knows the former president. "I was surprised to hear him make a comment like that, because I thought he understood our people better," said Wider, who said she will vote for Obama in Saturday's South Carolina primary. "It made me think he's been playing us all this time."

Wider's sentiments are echoing across black America -- on blogs, Web chats and talk radio, where Clinton is being attacked as never before.

It is a significant turnabout for Clinton, who throughout most of his presidency counted black people as his staunchest supporters. Less than eight years ago, African Americans gave the former president a stratospherically favorable rating -- higher than those for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

With his attacks on Obama, however, that appears to be changing, causing some strategists and observers to wonder whether Clinton's behavior will alienate black voters whom his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), will need should she win the nomination.

"The tone of some of the things he said just crossed a line," said David Bositis, chief researcher for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank. A 2000 survey by Bositis showed that 91 percent of African American respondents had a favorable view of Clinton. Bositis said he doubts that the number would be as high if the survey were conducted today.

"He thinks he has some free pass in terms of race," Bositis said of Clinton. "I've been watching the polls and Obama's been capturing a larger share of the black vote, and Clinton's like, 'I'm going to get mad.' "

Clinton still has a large share of black supporters. He is a member of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in his home state. Viewed objectively, his supporters say, the remarks about Obama on behalf of his wife were appropriate in the hard-fought New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.

Clinton has defended his "fairy tale" remark, noting that it referred to Obama's statement that he has always opposed the Iraq war, and was not about Obama's presidential campaign. He also noted that Obama called his wife the "Senator from Punjab" after she visited India and that Obama's campaign questioned the former president's financial dealings.

In a South Carolina attack ad, the Clinton campaign used part of an Obama quote to suggest that he supported Reagan administration policies as economically sound. But Obama criticized the policies as hurtful later in the statement.

"I never said anything disparaging about him or the reality of his campaign," Clinton said about the fairy tale remark. "It's a brilliant campaign, and this is an example of how brilliant it is. It rests on a false premise. I wasn't trying to be sneering or derisive. I was trying to think of a kinder characterization of his argument."

John Stevenson, a former school superintendent in South Carolina, said the remark upset him but not terribly. "I'm very impressed with Senator Clinton," he said. "I think Bill did an awful lot as president."

"People say a lot of things when they're embroiled in battle, and often they wish those things hadn't been said," Stevenson said. "I think I wish he hadn't said it."

Others are not as forgiving.

Anthony Peppers, a buyer for a manufacturing firm who lives in South Carolina, said Hillary Clinton's reputation among black voters will suffer for her husband's outbursts.

"I'm offended, because I thought she would not have dipped to this level," Peppers said. "You think she didn't agree for him to do that? If you have someone that close to you saying that, then it's her. She's got to live with it."

Wider's views were even sharper. "He can identify with us as much as he wants, but unless you're black, you don't know as much about it," she said. "I guess he's part of the old-boy system, too."

In New York, Sharon Toomer, founder and managing editor of, is not so sure that black people will turn out for Clinton. In a column, Toomer said she disagrees with novelist Toni Morrison's tongue-in-cheek characterization of Clinton as a black president, and with pundit Donna Brazile's statement that Clinton was a soldier for black people.

The crime control act signed by Clinton led to a disastrous spike in the black prisoner population, and the welfare-to-work legislation he signed was damaging to black families, Toomer wrote.

Clinton's tone toward Obama "was demeaning," Toomer said in a telephone interview. "He was calling him a boy, a kid, living in a dream land. I don't think he deserves the title of being a friend or being the first black president."

Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor, asserted that Clinton did nothing to stop the massacre in Rwanda during his administration and failed to act as AIDS decimated southern Africa. Walters, too, is not sure black voters would go to the polls for Hillary Clinton in the general election.

"[Bill] Clinton is the leading edge of this campaign, whether he wants to be or not," Walters said. "To the extent that his image declines in the black community, it's bound to have an effect on the entire enterprise."

During radio shows where Walters has appeared, he said: "Black people were calling saying, 'How dare they?' I don't believe any of this was accidental. I think they panicked because Barack had caught up . . . in the national polls."

Clinton attempted damage control while appearing on Sharpton's radio show. "I think he clearly was hurt by it," Sharpton said of the criticism. "I think part of his legacy is having a good relation ship with African Americans, and he didn't want to go down in history as having broken that relationship."

Tom Joyner, whose syndicated radio show is among the most popular on black radio stations, recently released a statement criticizing Clinton after an appearance by the former president. "When he spoke this morning, some people thought he was saying, I've done so much for black people, how dare you question me?" Joyner said.

Even with the criticism of Clinton, however, some in the black community believe that it will make little difference. Black voters will overwhelming support the Democratic nominee, no matter who it is, they say.

"I don't think the Clintons are the enemy to most black people," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University. "If Hillary succeeds, black people are going to vote for her. They might not be excited."

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