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The Politics of Race, Clinton-Style

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Message Gregg Gordon

Barack Obama and his team may not know it yet, but the Clintons have him right where they want him.

Following losses in New Hampshire and Nevada, Obama must win today in South Carolina -- or at least so it is perceived -- or the media will annoint Clinton the inevitable nominee, the fact that almost 99% of the convention delegates will still have yet to be chosen notwithstanding.

So he must win, but if he does win, there will be only one explanation: He won because he won the battle for the allegiance of South Carolina's large number of African-American voters -- the media obsession since the whole Clinton-Obama soap opera started a couple weeks ago. And then he will become the one thing he has assiduously tried to avoid becoming since his campaign began - the Black candidate. And then he's toast.

You have to hand it to the Clintons. They've engineered their campaign beautifully and have arrived at precisely the place they set out for. They can't lose. Indeed, I think they would rather lose in South Carolina on the terms they've managed -- with Obama winning heavily among blacks but receiving little support from whites, as the polls now indicate will happen -- than win a close one with little difference between the races.

It's truly been a masterpiece. First you send out the surrogates, often African-Americans, to drop scurrilous hints using objectively neutral but in fact racially-charged words like "cocaine" and "slumlord." Then Bill himself wades in with backhanded compliments on Obama's impressive youth -- although he's no younger than Bill was when he was elected President -- and talking about a "fairy tale." He all but called Obama "boy."

They knew black folks would see what was happening, and they knew there would be a backlash. That was the whole point. They'll be back in November. Whether they vote enthusiastically or while holding their noses, they all count the same. A vote's a vote.

And they knew the media would lap it up like dogs. The storyline has been set. The trap has been laid. Somewhere Karl Rove is watching with grudging admiration. Slick Willie? Oh yeah. Slick, cynical Willie.

I lived in the South for most of the last 25 years, and this is how it's done. Race is never far beneath the surface there, if it's beneath the surface at all. And it may be a little more subtle, but ultimately it's not much different elsewhere in the country. Is America ready for a black President? Of course not. And Obama's only hope was to make people think he wouldn't be a black President. But he got outmaneuvered.

I have no great sympathy for Obama at this point. He's run a campaign so far that seems to be modelled on Clinton's own in 1992 -- try to be all things to all people, keep vague on specifics, and count on the unpopularity of the incumbent party to carry you to victory. And as Clinton also showed, vacuous campaigns tend to lead to vacuous Presidencies. You can't sell out principles that you don't have, but you can sell out supporters.

But the sheer unfair, bullying aspect of the two-on-one Clinton campaign has bothered me, and I'm surprised no one in the media has called them on it. I guess he just makes too good copy. You don't bite the hand that feeds you.

I've never understood Bill Clinton's immense popularity among African-Americans. Sure, he's better than most Republicans, but his welfare reform forced thousands and thousands of single mothers -- many of them black -- to choose between keeping an eye on their children or feeding them. And the hideous expansion of the US prison system -- that's the most expensive, most wasteful welfare program of them all -- continued unabated during his terms, and again, most of the victims were black. He didn't even address the blatantly racist crack vs. cocaine sentencing disparities. Oh yes, he has black friends -- very, very rich black friends.

But who am I to judge? The esteemed novelist Toni Morrison once labelled him the "first black President," and her credentials are a bit more authentic than mine.

So don't look now, Barack, but you've just been Sister Souljahed. Maybe he has a comeback, and he can restore the image that won him the Iowa caucuses, where he had almost no black support because there isn't any there to be had. But that's ancient history now in what Gore Vidal calls "the United States of Amnesia." We'll see.

But as far as Bill Clinton is concerned, he was the first black President. And as long as he has anything to say about it, he'll be the last.

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Gregg Gordon is a writer, musician, activist, and otherwise ne'er-do-well in Columbus, Ohio. "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little." - Edmund Burke
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