Black like him

Despite the Starr report's dirty details, Paula Jones' case against the nation's "first black president" hinges as much on race as on sex

"We'd give them hypotheticals--you know, 'What if he admitted it,' that sort of thing. And they'd still say 'Naw, I'd throw her out.' Black men were almost as bad. Black women were the worst, then black men. White women were in the middle, and white men were the most likely to condemn him [Clinton]."

If the Jones case does go to trial before Wright's court in eastern Arkansas, picking a jury that excludes blacks is statistically unlikely, a fact that gives Clinton some leverage in settlement talks with Jones--and, for that matter, with Congress.

"He knows he can count on the black [congressional] caucus, because there'll be hell to pay with their constituency if they abandon him," the Jones team member says.

The question is, Why?

According to polls taken since the Lewinsky story broke last January, black people are far more likely than whites to support President Clinton. By 30 to 40 percent margins, more blacks than whites believe the president is doing a good job, trust him to keep his word, blame his enemies for his problems, and oppose his removal from office.

Dallas is no exception. A local weekly, the Dallas Examiner, put it succinctly two weeks ago. Across the cover, over a picture of Clinton, the Examiner splashed, "Bill: We Don't Care."

"Most of the calls I've had have been supportive of the president and supportive of moving on, and about the economy doing better and, basically, that he has been a friend to African-Americans and other people of color," says Cheryl Smith, who hosts Reporter's Roundtable on KKDA.

The conventional analysis is that this is simply a party-line phenomenon. "Blacks are the most loyal Democratic constituents in America, with the possible exception of Puerto Ricans," says David Lublin, an associate professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C., who specializes in African-American politics. "You would expect that strong Democrats would be the last people to desert him."

Maybe, but Puerto Ricans aren't threatening to stage marches on the president's behalf, as is Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. And some feminists--generally a Democratic bunch--have broken ranks with their leadership and are supporting Jones' appeal. "We were gagging under the hypocrisy," says Marie-Jose Ragab, president of the National Organization for Women's Dulles chapter near Washington, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Jones' behalf.

Moreover, black people's fidelity to Clinton is puzzling in part because he has betrayed them too. "What is perhaps interesting is that black elites have feuded with President Clinton over his budgetary priorities at times," notes Lublin. And some black presidential appointees have accused Clinton of abandoning them. Among them are Lani Guinier, who was Clinton's nominee to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, and Jocelyn Elders, the surgeon general whom Clinton somewhat ironically dismissed for publicly suggesting that masturbation should be mentioned as an alternative to sex in sex-education classes. But in Clinton's time of troubles, black voters recall only the good--the black nominees who got through, his friendship with Vernon Jordan, and the president's Initiative on Race.

"African-American voters in many cities have been unusually forgiving of politicians whom they like," Lublin continues, citing crack-smoking Washington Mayor Marion Barry. "And this may be part of a stand-by philosophy for politicians whom they like.

"Clinton has always been very good at casting himself and particularly this [scandal] in the sense of the Southern religious tradition of forgiveness and redemption, which is very much a part of the Southern Baptist tradition. And perhaps there's a section of African-Americans [who] can relate to this better [than whites]."

Carmen Pagano, who hosts a show on love and relationships on KKDA, says she hears this absolution especially from African-American women. "I do hear defense of the president, almost in the sense of forgiveness. They're very forgiving," says Pagano. "And also from Latino women."

Many say they identify with Clinton's life story. "They know the history," says M.T. A'Vant, a militant black activist. "Born poor, fatherless, his mother, the divorce, the gambling. You know, Clinton is a black man."

This notion of Clinton as an honorary black man is a common refrain. "Years ago," writes Toni Morrison in a recent issue of The New Yorker, "in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime." The black comedian Chris Rock told The New York Times that Clinton was "the first black president" because he was being "persecuted." "He got his hair cut for $200, and people lost their minds," Rock said. "It's very simple. Black people are used to being persecuted. Hence, they relate to Clinton."

Pointing to Clinton appointees such as late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who have come under Congressional scrutiny, some black intellectuals give credence to the notion of a plot by racist Republicans to target a president who has been too friendly to blacks. "And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear," Toni Morrison continues, "when the president's body, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men" who claimed the president was a brother?

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