Rep. James Clyburn on being majority whip, golfing and the Electric Slide

The House Majority Whip talks with The Washington Post's Mary Ann Akers about Rep. John Boehner's spastic golf swing, Rep. Steny Hoyer's agility and why he finds strength in turtles.
By Mary Ann Akers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; 9:17 PM

In his capacity as House majority whip, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina has one of the more hands-on jobs in Congress. The lead vote counter for the Democratic leadership, his position requires deft diplomacy and powerful persuasion. Where others before him cajoled with brass knuckles -- hello, Tom DeLay, a.k.a. "the Hammer" -- Clyburn's style is softer, more soothing. Hence his preferred nickname: the "Velvet Glove."

If Clyburn had a mascot, it would be a turtle. ("Turtles are important. They're important symbols to me. Slow and methodical, stay focused and every now and then, stick your neck out.")

We sat down with the Velvet Glove in his leadership office in the Capitol this week and talked about everything from his golf game and dance moves to his views, as a black man, on the more racially charged elements of the "tea party" craze.

We also asked Clyburn, who turns 70 in July, about his standing in a leadership structure that tends not to delegate. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, herself a former whip, recently declared: "I never stop whipping.")

Q: What's it like being whip in a leadership where power is so centralized at the top? Where does that leave you when they are so involved?

A: When you have a caucus as diverse as our caucus -- we have seven distinct caucuses within our caucus -- when you've got 41 African Americans and 53 Blue Dogs [mostly white southerners] . . . then you've got a different issue when it comes to whipping. So no matter how long Pelosi or Hoyer have been whips, the fact of the matter is I have some attributes in getting this done that they don't have.

You're known as a pretty good golfer. What's your handicap?

My handicap right now is around 13. When I came to Congress it was lower. Before I started running for Congress, I used to be in the single digits.

If you could play golf against one pro, who would you choose?

I've never played with Tiger Woods. I've played with Phil Mickelson, who's the Number 2 guy. I've played with Steve Stricker, who's the Number 3 guy. So if you look at the top 10 golfers, I think I've played with about half of 'em.

Have you ever played against [House Minority Leader] John Boehner?

Yes, absolutely I've played against him plenty of times. He's a good golfer. He's got a swing that's more like Jim Furyk than it is Tiger Woods.

So he's a little spastic in the swing?

Yeah, very much so.

How worried are you about the violent elements of the tea party-ization of the country. Are you worried about the president's security? Are you worried about your own security as a black leader?

Not one bit. . . . People are going to look back on this health care and they're going to wonder: "Why did people resist this so?" And I think that people will look back on the presidency of Barack Obama and they're going to say, "I wonder why so many people had so many anxious moments when they elected the first African American president." 'Cause a lot of this has got to do with that.

A video of you [and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer] doing the Electric Slide recently went -- if not viral -- on YouTube. And you're a pretty good dancer. And I was just wondering who the other hidden talents of the dance floor are in the House Democratic Caucus.

The speaker's a good dancer. A lot of people may not know that, but she is. . . . Steny wanted to do it. For some strange reason he turned to me and said, "Man, do y'all do the Electric Slide here?" What we should have done, we should have turned the Charleston shuffle on to see if he really could dance. Because the Electric Slide is sort of a wedding reception kind of thing.

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