Hillary Clinton & Black America

I remember the exact moment Hillary Clinton lost the 2008 presidential nomination. It was at approximately 9:25 AM on February 7, 2006, a little less than a year before she announced her presidential run in January of 2007. Clinton sabotaged her campaign before it started by choosing to speak at the funeral of our revered first lady of African America, civil rights advocate Coretta Scott King. There Clinton made the fatal error of following her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on one of the best speeches to the African American community any white person in history had ever given. President Clinton was nothing short of luminous, the highlight of the homegoing celebration. The goodwill flooding the former president was assigned by proxy to Senator Hillary Clinton, who was surely going to run for the White House and who, to that moment, had the black vote in her pocket.

President Clinton had said all that could or should possibly be said about the late civil rights leader. All Hillary needed to do was smile, wave, and sit down. I firmly believe, had she done that, she would be president of the United States as I write these words. Instead, she decided to take the stage herself, following her husband’s over-long but deeply moving speech. And the worst thing happened that could possibly have happened to her: Black America realized, for the first time, that Hillary was not Bill.

Which is not to say her speech was not appropriate or was not good. It was both. But it came across as opportunistic and overtly political; Bill had spoken for the Clinton family and, in the black church’s staunchly patriarchal hierarchy, that was both appropriate and sufficient. Everyone else on the rostrum was a U.S. president. Hillary Clinton, a sitting U.S. Senator and one of only two active office holders on the dais, standing at her husband’s side certainly seemed appropriate and, frankly, the optic was all she actually needed. There was no need for her to actually *speak.* After Bill brought down the house, Clinton could only lose by speaking. There was nowhere for the energy to go but down, and a savvier public speaker would have recognized that and aborted the mission.

Her speaking only undermined her efforts to connect with the black community because by actually speaking she demonstrated how little Clinton actually understood our culture or where she was (both literally and symbolically) standing at the moment. I mean, she might as well have hugged a Hassidic Jew. Had anyone familiar with the Black Church experience actually prepped Mrs. Clinton, she’d have known she had the crowd in the palm of her hand–right up to the moment she actually opened her mouth. Had she simply said nothing, smiled and waved, she’d have won over the crowd and the overwhelming majority of African America watching her at that moment.

Instead, she gave a speech, now seeming oddly out of place among the presidents, arrogant for prematurely equating herself as their peer, and, in some ways, disrespectful of her husband, Black America’s Elvis. Worse, rather than bond with Black America, she separated herself from us by making the point Hillary was not Bill. That single opportunity released Black America from what had, to that very moment, been a kind of spell—assurance of locked-in brand loyalty. Hillary Was Not Bill, which made it all right for us to consider alternatives, something I myself had not actively done before the King funeral. This is not something ever talked about in mainstream political shows, many of them desperate to fill hours with blather from various talking heads.

In many ways, Hillary Clinton made Barack Obama (and, by that logic, Sarah Palin) possible. George W. Bush’s presidency was such a historical disgrace and unprecedented disaster that it was unlikely a Republican would be elected to follow him. The more credible Hillary seemed, the less far-fetched the much-ignored run of a first-term black senator seemed. America, black and white, were not paying a lot of attention to Barack Obama back in 2006. His campaign seemed like a trial run for a 2012 or 2016 bid, which may have been why Hillary warmly embraced him early on. But, the farther right GOP frontrunner Senator John McCain moved, the more viable Hillary seemed. The more viable Hillary seemed, the more likely it seemed that the gender barrier to the White House may finally break. 2008 began to shape up as a historic election teeming with possibility.

What Hillary Clinton’s advisors may not have adequately factored in: the more reasonable a woman candidate seemed, the more reasonable a black candidate seemed. In other words, the more successful Hillary was, the less absurd Obama as president seemed. America began to adjust and prepare for a historic election. Once that happened, it mattered not which barrier was broken.

All of which is to speculate that Barack Obama walked boldly through doors Hillary Clinton opened. Clinton was the precedent-shatterer whose qualifications and experience meant she could not be denied equal footing in the presidential race. But her core constituency—Black America—moved to Obama the more credible the Illinois senator’s campaign became, which wounded Clinton in a big way. As we rewind the tape and reexamine the numbers and review the polls, I remain absolutely convinced the turning point, for Black America, was the King funeral and Mrs. Clinton’s flat, pedestrian, politically opportunist speech following her husband’s barn burner. That and the seeming inappropriateness of Hillary standing, as either a U.S. Senator, former First Lady or both, in the arena of presidents current and former. She should not have spoken. A wave, a smile, and I am convinced she would be president today.


  1. I suspect that you’re not wrong on this.

  2. Ah, man.. It seems like the Dems’ party orthodoxy wants Hillary, regardless. Hillary is willing to give some progressive lip-service, at least this early in the process. But when it comes to primary time, I have a feeling she will throw “hard left” folks under 12 buses and start asserting her “pragmatic” “center-left” (really, center-right) bonafides, and her outright hawkish foreign policy to convince the rubes that she’s not “soft on terror.” For the past 40 years, the conservative culture has been far more successful in creating memes that shape people’s worldviews (giving credit where it is due). “Socialism” in American eyes has been spun into Soviet Communism decades ago. Bernie’s going to have a Sisyphean time of explaining that to the Joe & Jane Plumbers out there that he doesn’t want public schoolteachers openly doing cocaine in classrooms and leading discussions on the mechanics of gay sex. There are millions of people who think this is “public education”, therefore, they’re against it. I’m dead serious. The SCOTUS decision on gay marriage will be blamed, fairly or unfairly, on Democrats. Conservative candidates will get lots of mileage by vowing to repeal it or abolish the SCOTUS, even though realistic people know that’s not going to happen. (I have to admit that I am perversely intrigued by how polarizing the gay marriage decision is going to be in African American voting circles. Does a vast group among those of us who even bother to vote, or who have never voted, get single-issue fever and jump ship to the GOP as the ‘morals party’, despite their fealty to a thousand policies that adversely affect us? Does this become the “We’ve lost the south for a generation” of the 21st century? Hmmm… Lapsed Catholic Senses tingling..)
    What’s worse, the Dems candidates will, at best, sheepishly defend their policy positions, when faced with the hordes of Goobers riled up by Fox News (shout out to Stacy Dash), the Christian Coalition and others. The Dems will get soundly creamed (again) at the Congressional level, leaving at best, yet another super-stalemate in a possible Clinton White House with Boehner & McConnell leading the Coalition of the Unwilling.

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