Soul Mates

By Coates, Ta-Nehisi | The Washington Monthly, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Soul Mates


Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Washington Monthly


Black America's love affair with Bill Clinton

BILL CLINTON'S SCANDALS WERE supposed to end on Jan. 20. But days after leaving office, he was taking hits for his late-night pardon of financier fugitive Marc Rich, and absconding with White House furniture. Congress was threatening to pull the plug on his plans for a pricey New York office suite, and Wall Street firms were cancelling his speaking engagements. Other people might have buckled under pressure and checked themselves into the Bali Hilton just to get away from it all.

But what did Clinton do? He went to Harlem, the capital of black America and, as such, the best place for the scandal-fatigued to find redemption. Harlem didn't disappoint; it gave Clinton a welcome befitting a war hero. As he strolled the neighborhood, people screamed, "We love you," and "Touch my hand." Clinton lunched on Creole cuisine at the Bayou, where a busboy told the Baltimore Sun, "I never wanted Clinton to leave office."

Clinton's move to 125th Street was a masterful piece of damage control that obliterated complaints about his office space in Midtown and sent a dual message. To blacks, Clinton once again said, "I feel your pain." To whites, he said, "I am bad enough to walk streets--albeit with Secret Service in tow--that most of you wouldn't be caught on at high noon." If the black community needed more reason to continue its love affair with Clinton, this was it.

It's not as if Clinton's reputation in black America was ever in danger. Towards the end of his term, Clinton was viewed favorably by a staggering 83 percent of African Americans. Even in his ignominious departure from office, Clinton's support among blacks seemed only to increase as it declined elsewhere. Not that there aren't a few nay-sayers. "But nothing, it seems, is capable of eroding the faith of gullible African Americans in their continued idolization of Clinton," fumed columnist Gregory Kane in the Baltimore Sun. "Going to Harlem in the midst of his troubles is not a compliment to blacks but an insult."

Critics point to Clinton's failures on criminal justice and racial dialogue, along with his meek defense of the poor, as evidence that he is not worthy of such adulation. They wonder how African Americans can back a man who so mildly defended their interests. The answer lies not in federal Washington, but in its municipal host, the District of Columbia, which for 16 years played home to black America's most recalcitrant mayor, Marion S. Barry Jr.

On paper, their personal histories make Clinton and Barry seem like veritable blood brothers. They have both spent most of their lives running for one office or another. Like Clinton, Barry never forgets a name, and he is a silver-tongued devil whose charm powers are legendary. Clinton's well-known love of policy is nearly matched by Barry's exhaustive knowledge of the workings of municipal government--which helps explain why he was so adept at screwing it up.

Both men are from the South and were raised poor by single mothers. Both have had their potentially impressive careers marred by an inability to manage their appetites for lust. And both are the bane of white conservatives and Washingtons elite. Barry was despised by the black upper crust of D.C.'s Gold Coast, which dismissed him as an unsophisticated `Bama just as Georgetown socialites snubbed Clinton as trailer trash. Clinton left the country in vastly better shape than Barry left the District, but both have been awarded a moral pass from people who specialize in offering redemption to wayward souls.

Mayor For Life

For years, federal prosecutors had been trying to bring down the mayor of D.C. They caught a lot of his friends and administration members, but it wasn't until 1989, in Barry's third term, that the FBI finally found something to pin on him. The now-infamous video of Barry smoking crack at the Vista Hotel landed him in a federal prison for a six-month misdemeanor sentence. …

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