Fool Me Thrice
It should be no surprise that the Clintons are playing the race card.
How can one equal Bill Clinton for thuggery and opportunism when it comes to the so-called "race card"? And where does one even start with the breathtaking nastiness of his own conduct, and that of his supporters, in the last week? Barack Obama carries South Carolina having made no sectarian appeal to any specific kind of voter, and the best Clinton can say is that this is no better than Jesse Jackson managed to do. Really? Did Jackson come south having already got himself elected the senator from Illinois? And, come to think of it, was Jackson so much to be despised and sneered at when he was needed as Clinton's "confessor," along with Billy Graham, during the squalor of impeachment?
This calculated willingness to shop on both sides of the street of racial politics was actually analyzed quite shrewdly by Dick Morris, the former consigliere of the gruesome twosome, in conversation with Sean Hannity last week. The Clintons, he thought, would be quite happy to lose big to the "black vote" in South Carolina. It would enable them to signal that they were the ones to stem the flow of the color tide. Morris' host protested that this seemed a touch cynical. Morris jovially assured him that he knew the people he was talking about.
As indeed he did. It was Hillary Clinton who insisted on recalling Morris to the embattled White House, notwithstanding his various disgraces and notwithstanding the fact that he had been the adviser and strategist for Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Why am I saying "notwithstanding"? It was becausehe had performed so well for Helms, including helping him with the famous "white hands" ad that showed a white man crumpling up a letter that told him of preference for "minorities" in hiring, that Morris was thought of by the then-first lady as such a guru.
I never quite understand how the Clintons' initial exploitation of racism was overlooked the first time around and has been airbrushed from the record since. After falling behind in the New Hampshire primary in 1992, and after being caught lying about the affair with Gennifer Flowers to which he later confessed under oath, Clinton left the campaign trail and flew home to Arkansas to give the maximum publicity to his decision to sign a death warrant for Ricky Ray Rector. Rector was a black inmate on death row who had shot himself in the head after committing a double murder and, instead of dying as a result, had achieved the same effect as a lobotomy would have done. He never understood the charge against him or the sentence. After being served his last meal, he left the pecan pie on the side of the tray, as he told the guards who came to take him to the execution chamber, "for later." Several police and prison-officer witnesses expressed extreme queasiness at this execution of a gravely impaired man, and the prison chaplain, Dennis Pigman, later resigned from the prison service. The whole dismal and cruel and pathetic story was told by Marshall Frady in a long essay in The New Yorkerin 1993 and is also recounted in a chapter titled "Chameleon in Black and White" by your humble servant in his book No One Left To Lie To.For now, I just ask you to imagine what would have been said if a Republican governor, falling in the polls, had gone out of his way to execute a mentally incompetent African-American prisoner.
Or leaf back, if you will, to the New York Timesof March 23, 1992, and the jolly headline, "Club Where Clinton Has Golfed Retains Ways of Old South." Yes indeedy, the Country Club of Little Rock had 500 members, all of them white, and the aspirant candidate had himself photographed there more than once until Jerry Brown made an issue of it. It was then announced by Clinton's people that "the staff and facilities" at the club were "integrated"—a pretty way of stating that the toilets were cleaned by black Arkansans. Yet all this was forgiven by credulous liberals who were sure that they had discovered a New Democrat who was a Southerner to boot.
Many of these same people do not like it now that they see similar two-faced tactics being employed against "one of their own." Well, tough. And many of the most prominent and eloquent black columnists—Bob Herbert, Colbert King, Eugene Robinson—are also acting shocked. It's a bit late. I have to say that Bob Herbert shocked even me by quoting Andrew Young, who said that his pal Clinton was "every bit as black as Barack" because he'd screwed more black chicks. How is Hillary Clinton, or Chelsea Clinton, supposed to feel on hearing thatlittle endorsement? One gets the impression, though, at least from the wife, that anything is OK as long as it works, or even has a chance of working. When Toni Morrison described Clinton as "black" on the basis of his promiscuity and dysfunction and uncertainty about his parentage, she did more than cater to the white racist impression of the African-American male. She tapped into the sort of self-hatred that is evidently more common than we might choose to think. Say what you will about Sen. Obama (and I say that he's got much more charisma than guts), he is miles above this sort of squalor and has decent manners. Say what you will about the Clintons, you cannot acquit them of having played the race card several times in both directions and of having done so in the most vulgar and unscrupulous fashion. Anyone who thinks that this equals "change" is a fool, and an easily fooled fool at that.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Bill Clinton by Eric Thayer/AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of Clinton on Slate's home page by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.