COLUMBIA, S.C. — James E. Clyburn was finally home, away from Washington and all the questions about race, identity politics and generational change.
The House majority whip smiled as he took the stage to bask in the glow of more than 1,500 supporters. “This country doesn’t have to be made great again. It is already great and been great for a long time,” Clyburn said, kicking off Friday night’s “World Famous Fish Fry”.
Clyburn knew Friday’s event was about more than just 4,000 pounds of fried fish and thanking supporters ahead of the state’s Democratic convention on Saturday. It was intended as a legacy moment for the highest-ranking African American ever in Congress, probably the last time this 78-year-old would preside over a fish fry with presidential contenders courting this state’s black voters ahead of the nation’s first Southern primary next February.
In a show of unity, every candidate stuck around until the end to march onstage and pose for pictures, wearing blue “Clyburn” T-shirts.
A few minutes earlier, just before 11 p.m., after he called the 19th of 21 candidates onstage to speak for a few minutes, Clyburn wiped the sweat from his brow amid humidity that made it feel as if it were still 90 degrees.
The seemingly endless parade of speakers highlighted one of Clyburn’s biggest concerns: a field as big and diverse as this one, in terms of ideology, identity and generations, will inevitably leave some voters feeling cheated. And it could make unifying around the eventual nominee almost impossible.
“They have all those thoughts out there for the American people, but what makes it a problem is reconciling all that at the end of the process,” Clyburn said in an earlier interview in Washington. “Can you conclude this process in a way that everybody had their chance to make their case? Already you’re seeing some doubts.”
He fears a replay of 1972 in Miami, where he was a delegate at the Democratic convention that ended in bitter acrimony and helped lead to George McGovern losing in a rout to Richard M. Nixon.
“We’ve been here before,” he said.
In the days leading up to his marquee event, Clyburn found himself in political brawls that expose how deep some of those fault lines run.
A younger crowd of black South Carolinians have called Clyburn’s public neutrality in 2020 a facade, citing his long-standing ties to Joe Biden.
When Biden highlighted his Senate work with segregationist Democrats in the 1970s as an example of his ability to get things done, Clyburn defended the former vice president. He recalled his own early days in the House, when he had to work with Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) in the Senate.
Others defending Biden included Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the 79-year-old civil rights icon, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is also 79.
Clyburn also found trouble when he did interviews with the national press over the past week to hype the fish fry, including one with the Wall Street Journal in which he said Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) were practitioners of “tokenism” when it came to hiring minority staff.
That led to a day of apologies, and a fuller explanation that he has been frustrated by the party’s slow recognition of the need to diversify staff.
All of this added pressure to an event that has its origins in Clyburn’s political rise. During his first campaign, back in 1978 for South Carolina secretary of state, he realized that the Friday night before the annual state party convention was normally reserved for big-dollar fundraisers. After winning his first congressional race in 1992, Clyburn held a thank-you event for his supporters, with fish and bread, holding it on the night before the convention.
“Let’s make it affordable, and I thought free would be affordable,” Clyburn recalled thinking.
The event grew every year, especially when the Democrats running for president came calling to kiss the ring.
As he has usually done, Clyburn has said he is neutral, reserving the right to endorse just before the South Carolina primary. He hopes he does not have to play the role of referee, but he does expect a fierce race.
“We are going to let them play the game. We won’t call the game too close. When you got this many people, there will be some elbows being thrown. As long as the fouls are not flagrant, I won’t bother about them,” he said.
Clyburn has his defenders among the 2020 crowd. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who is running his long-shot bid on generational change, said that Clyburn recently drove up to a fundraiser in the state for the 40-year-old’s campaign and introduced him to the crowd.
“He’s been more than fair to me,” Moulton said outside the state party’s dinner in the convention center.
In the interview, Clyburn said that he will run in 2020 and “make some assessments after next year’s election.” He mentioned Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, and Jaime Harrison, the former Clyburn aide who was the state party chairman and is running against Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) next year.
“There is Jennifer Reed, whose maiden name just happens to be Clyburn, who a lot of people think, I don’t know what she thinks, but a lot of people talk to me about her,” he said of his daughter.
Reed had a prominent speaking role Friday night.
Clyburn is ready to pass another torch too, as the senior Congressional Black Caucus member in leadership. A year ago, as some questioned whether Pelosi would have the votes to become speaker again, Clyburn openly floated his name as an alternative.
He said he is “beyond that” now and that the first black House speaker would come from the “next generation,” citing Reps. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio).
He will not be the one making that history, but he wants to see that day come whenever Pelosi steps aside.
“I’m always looking for ways to break barriers, to smash through glass ceilings,” Clyburn said.