THE SPINE JANUARY 22, 2008
Bill Clinton dozed off at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem just as his wife was receiving the endorsement (or, more properly, the blessing) of Calvin Butts at Abyssinian Baptist Church, eight or so blocks away. This church had been the pulpit of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. -- "Mr. Jesus" to his congregation, member of Congress and husband to the politically fearless lefty (just one instance: as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committees) and staggeringly sexual songstress of my youth, Hazel Scott, like Lena Horne. A randy fellow. I don't think that black preachers have the sway they once had. Or white ministers, for that matter, except for those who are evangelicals and fundamentalists operating out of humongous mall churches.But back to the black ministers and their diminished sway. The decline of preacher power is a coming of age of the African-American population, much as it is among Irish and Italian Catholics or Jews or, for a demographically near-fatal shift, mainstream Protestants, who mostly and at best think their ministers are irrelevant. The black clerisy cannot any longer instruct its parishioners about their voting. It is an irony, of course, that the Harlem pastorate's last swing at real political influence over their congregations is for a white woman and against a black man. Yet it also emphasizes their reactionary cast. No one since Martin Luther King has anyone so inspired and energized young whites as Barack Obama. This, then, is a real cross-racial alliance built on the cultural and educational achievements of African-Americans and on the true openness of whites and Asians to their black brothers and sisters. The bond between every Calvin Butts in America and Hillary is the old fix, pliant for the former, patronizing for the latter. And, as for the latter and her husband, it is also ugly. An article in this morning's Financial Times by Edward Luce and Stephanie Kirchgaessner makes clear how perilous this is for the Clintons -- and for the Democrats, in general. The most significant trap is that Bill risks making himself the prime issue of his wife's campaign, two nasty and unimaginably calculating folk baying at Barack Obama whom almost everyone finds gracious. Me too.There is a calculus to the Clintons trying to make Obama run as the black candidate. It is to stir up fear in one part of Hillary's constituency, white women and particularly older white women. The other goal for Hillary is to turn Obama into a taunt for Hispanic Americans. After all, there was not one significant black figure in the Clinton administration, except on what you'd have to call the black reservations like Housing. Yes, there was the supreme fixer outside the administration, probably because he couldn't get confirmed for anything or no plausible appointment was high enough for him, Vernon Jordan. The Clintons did not offend Hispanic Americans, not at all. For instance, they made Bill Richardson U.N. ambassador.One of the largely unexamined frontiers in American politics is the one between African-Americans and Hispanic Americans, and it is at best a frosty frontier. There are more voting Latinos than there are voting blacks in the electorate, and probably more in the larger states that are soon to have primaries. Like New York and California on Super Tuesday. Watch for malicious mischief.