By Ceci Connolly and Robert Pierre
At a time when President Clinton is desperate for allies, no constituency has been more visible in its support for the beleaguered president than African Americans. And no group of lawmakers may be more critical in protecting him against an increasingly hostile Congress than the Black Caucus.
So strong is the rallying cry around Clinton that some blacks in Maryland are even considering voting against Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening because he canceled a Clinton fund-raiser and skipped a presidential appearance at a Silver Spring school last week.
"The governor hurt himself with me by disrespecting the office of the president," said Arthur Swit, 55, a retired railroad worker from Columbia. "When Clinton came to that school and the governor didn't go, that's disrespectful."
Glendening may have thought he was limiting political damage by distancing himself from Clinton, but interviews with dozens of black voters in Maryland Tuesday indicate he may have also inadvertently antagonized some of his most loyal followers.
"It's just not playing well in the African American community," said Prince George's County Council member Dorothy Bailey (D), who is black and a staunch Glendening supporter. "Historically, we are a forgiving people. The people I have talked to said, 'You don't desert your friends in times of trouble.' "
For all his political life, Clinton has counted African Americans among his friends. But the Monica S. Lewinsky case -- or Kenneth Starr scandal as many blacks put it -- has brought out the fighting spirit in a community that relates to the underdog.
Today, it is a rare confluence of partisan political goals, personal relations and spiritual beliefs that has made black America a haven for Clinton in troubled times.
Like whites, most blacks say they do not condone Clinton's affair with the intern or his misleading statements about the relationship. But, they say, they are trying to put it in perspective, weighing the president's record and series of apologies.
"Black ministers are far more open to the possibility of forgiveness," said Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "It's hard to turn away when the most powerful man in the world has decided to make racial justice his priority. So we're very loyal, very forgiving."
Jesse L. Jackson provided counsel to the first family during the weekend before Clinton's grand jury testimony.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus -- whose annual convention Clinton is scheduled to address Saturday night -- said that unlike many white politicians, when Clinton looks at an African American he sees a person, not just another black face.
"The black community knows the difference between individuals who patronize them and are forced to get to know black leaders and those who genuinely look you in the eye, know you and call you by your name," she said. "His eyes are not glazed over when he looks at blacks."
The trouble for Glendening is the first sign Democrats may face a backlash if they abandon Clinton in his time of need. The governor is himself popular among black voters, but some elected officials say his presidential snub could hinder efforts to generate a heavy African American turnout, seen by some as critical to a Democratic victory in Maryland.
"You shouldn't distance yourself but draw closer to a person in trouble," said John Wayne, 51, of Baltimore. "If you think the boat's going to sink, don't jump out. Row harder."
Other Democrats looking for black votes are still willing to appear with the president. "We're not going to pull a Parris Glendening," said a spokesman for Missouri Senate candidate Jay Nixon when asked if he would attend a fund-raiser with Clinton next month.
"We have a tendency to stick with our friends," said Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), who is standing by Clinton despite attacks by an aggressive GOP opponent. "From civil rights to affirmative action to education, he is uplifting the lives of people whose circumstances would not on their own propel them into a life of economic security."
Many African Americans, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, say they are simply being practical. "We don't care what he does in his personal life; it's his work ethic we like," said Janet Ryder of Philadelphia, who praises Clinton as a friend of working people.
From the time he was a young boy hanging out in his grandfather's uniquely desegregated general store in Hope, Ark., to his tenure as governor of Arkansas, Clinton has moved comfortably in black circles, appointing record numbers of African Americans to high posts, belting out hymns in Southern churches and pursuing an agenda that has largely aimed at raising the status of blacks across the nation. He is, in the words of black author Ishmael Reed, "a white soul brother."
Indeed, Clinton is viewed more favorably among black voters than Jackson or Colin L. Powell, according to a comprehensive poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
In the latest Washington Post poll, 94 percent of African Americans believe Clinton is a strong leader, compared to 62 percent of white respondents. The survey also found that blacks give Clinton higher ratings than whites in virtually every category including job approval, trustworthiness and his ability to relate to average Americans.
David Bositis, author of the Joint Center's survey, said the special bond between many blacks and Clinton goes beyond party registration. In the eyes of many blacks, Clinton's poor upbringing, willingness to appoint black officials and his "role as a buffer" between them and the conservative Republican Congress all factor in his high popularity.
And the sex scandal threatening to remove him from office has offered yet one more piece of evidence to many blacks that Clinton is like them, "persecuted" by a corrupt and racist criminal justice system.
"In the African American community, a number of our leaders have been subjected to a level of scrutiny that isn't given to our white counterparts," said Sharif Street, a black law student in Philadelphia. "The people who have been supportive of us find themselves in a similar position."
Just as many blacks -- without condoning drug use -- attacked the investigation of District Mayor Marion Barry as a witch hunt, many view Starr's work as an overzealous probing into private matters. They compare the Clinton-Starr relationship to the battle between Martin Luther King Jr. and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
"Ken Starr was hired by a multibillionaire with an agenda against the president," said Shirley M. Kitchen, a Philadelphia state senator. In The Post survey, 90 percent of black respondents believed Starr is out to hurt the president politically, compared to 56 percent of whites.
"When you measure the known good against the known bad, it is overwhelmingly lopsided in Clinton's favor," said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D), who represents a predominantly black Philadelphia district.
He and other supporters praise the president for promoting Head Start, raising the minimum wage, cracking down on crime, traveling to Africa, expanding educational opportunities and helping to create the lowest unemployment rate ever among African Americans. As Fattah put it: "It would be less than politically intelligent to abandon Clinton for this admitted adulterous relationship."
There are dissenters. The Philadelphia Tribune, a large black newspaper, called this week for Clinton's resignation, noting that despite its historic support for him the scandal has become "a creeping cancer that will slowly, but inexorably, paralyze our government."
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and other black leaders criticize Clinton for the welfare overhaul, his support of the death penalty, a squishy affirmative action policy and the stalled race initiative. However, Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) said he and many "rank and file African Americans" agreed with Clinton on welfare and the death penalty.
For his part, Glendening is attempting to repair damage in the African American community in visits to black churches. He makes clear Clinton's actions are not consistent with those he has taught his teenage son, Raymond. But when asked yesterday about the criticism from black voters, he said: "People know I support the president's policies."
Staff writer Hanna Rosin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company