Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderationby Georgia Jones Sorenson
With those inaugural words, William Jefferson Clinton began his first term as President of the United/b>
"The urgent question of our time is whether we can make change our friend and not our enemy....To renew America, we must be bold...must revitalize our democracy....Together with our friends and allies, we will work to shape change, lest it engulf us."
With those inaugural words, William Jefferson Clinton began his first term as President of the United States. Now, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a former White House aide provide the first penetrating, thoughtful evaluation of President Clinton's leadership.
Before he was voted into office, Bill Clinton told the authors in an interview that he wanted to be a transforming leader, a president who would fashion real and lasting change in peoples' lives, in the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But how has this president, who has sought to lead from the center with his vice president, Al Gore, and the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, measured up against his own stated goals and the aspirations and performances of other presidents since World War II? From the health care debacle and the 1994 midterm elections that swept the Republicans to a majority in both houses of Congress to the effect of scandal and impeachment on his ability to govern, Dead Center examines the leadership style of Bill Clinton and offers a forceful challenge to the strategy of centrism.
There is no more respected presidential historian than James MacGregor Burns, author of several acclaimed books on leadership and the Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Georgia J. Sorenson adds her own insights as a political scientist and presidential scholar. Their combined efforts have resulted in an incisive, informative, authoritative work and an absorbing read.
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Chapter Ten: True North
Often in the life of leaders, an early event has transformed them forever. It can temper ambition with purpose and challenge teachings of the past. It holds a mirror up and demands "Who are you?" and "What do you stand for?" For some it was Selma and Birmingham; for others it was looking down a rifle in Vietnam or at Wounded Knee. For Bill Clinton, it was the Little Rock Nine.
In 1957, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled to dismantle segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, nine black teenagers walked silently to the door of Central High School in Little Rock. The televised event mesmerized the eleven-year-old Clinton, who attended Ramble Elementary, a segregated school fifty miles away in Hot Springs.
He watched as Governor Orval Faubus dramatically summoned the National Guard to prevent them from entering the school. He watched as President Eisenhower then ordered the Army's 101st Airborne Division to the state capital. He watched as the teenagers were escorted through angry mobs to the front door by soldiers with gleaming bayonets drawn, for all the world to see on the nightly news. "It was Little Rock that made racial equality a driving obsession in my life," he later admitted.
A decade later, in July 1969, Clinton himself, in a little-noted event, would lead a group of seventy-five young people, mostly black, on a march on the Hot Springs whites-only swimming pool. It was unseasonably hot and his hometown had only one swimming pool.
He was twenty-two, back from Oxford, waiting on the draft board. He was oversize with long hair and ragged clothes. He exuded wildly conflicting energy -- raw, full, and florid. The times were raw too. "There was a lot of racial tension in the community. And there had been some racial incidents -- shots fired into black stores at night and curfews imposed," he recalled.
Young Clinton wrestled with the situation in late-night rap sessions with Glen Mahone, a local activist, and a close group of friends, black and white. They talked about the South's "peculiar institution" and about how little had actually changed since nine black teenagers desegregated Central High School. They talked about their hero, Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated the spring of the year before. But what could they do?
The answer was just down the hill and below the Boys Club -- the only pool in town sparkling and shimmering in the wavy heat of July. Robert Kissire remembered the summer and how in Mississippi they had integrated the public pool. First it was whites-only hour, then the blacks-only hour, then they drained the entire pool of water and filled it up again for whites-only hour.
Actions like this had enraged Clinton and his friends. They marched to the Hot Springs pool, black and white mixed together. "We're here to swim," Clinton, towel in hand, proclaimed as the group's spokesperson. No immediate change resulted. No police. No fire hoses. No barking dogs. They were turned away at the gate and the pool was immediately shut down.
But over the next few weeks Clinton and a handful of the activists began a series of quiet negotiations with city officials and business leaders that soon led to the integration of the facility. It was a telling victory for the future president. And it presaged one of his enduring reactions to conflict -- quiet persistence.
Bill Clinton came of age during a time that historians remember as the civil rights era. Growing up in a segregated Jim Crow South, he was ultimately called upon to confront W. E. B. Du Bois's "problem of the twentieth century": the color line.
One of the words most often used to describe Clinton is pragmatic. Some argue that he has no constancy or core -- no values or ideals that are not up for trade. But if values can be described as core beliefs arising from the essence of individual character, then deep in his heart Bill Clinton always had a passionate desire for justice and equality, particularly for black Americans. That desire he would not moderate or ignore. It was etched in his soul, his music, his friendships, his marriage, and his early life experiences.
Since his earliest childhood days, he had been committed to equality. "My entire public life has been dominated by three things: economics, education, and race. It is a part of who I am and what I've done," he said. Hillary Rodham Clinton too would note in 1998 that racial justice was her husband's deepest conviction. Harold Ickes, a veteran of the civil rights movement in the South and former White House deputy chief of staff, agreed: "If there is a true north to Bill Clinton, it is race."
Raised by grandparents who ran their color-blind store in the black part of town, Clinton never knew how his grandfather Eldridge Cassidy had come by his strong convictions. Cassidy had only a sixth-grade education from a tiny rural school, but he taught young Clinton by words and example that "we are all equal -- with a right to live in dignity." The year Cassidy died was the year Little Rock's Central High School became one of the touchstones of the civil rights movement. Young Clinton's friends remember him arguing that integration was the only moral outcome. The Little Rock Nine changed -- and sensitized -- him forever.
As a young delegate from Arkansas to Boys Nation, Clinton was one of only three or four southerners who voted for its civil rights plank. President Kennedy cited their courage in that now-famous Rose Garden ceremony, referring approvingly to the boys' statement in the Washington Post that morning that "racism was like a cancerous disease."
Like so many young people of his generation, Clinton was deeply moved later that same summer by Martin Luther King Jr. "I was in my living room in Hot Springs," he said later. "I sat and watched on national television the great March on Washington unfold. I remember weeping uncontrollably during King's speech, and I remember thinking when it was over, my country would never be the same and neither would I." He memorized King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
As a college student in Washington, D.C., during the race riots when the city burned in the spring of 1968, he drove to the inner city to help. Still in his twenties, the young Rhodes Scholar organized and took part in mixed-race dialogues and dances and led acts of civil disobedience in his hometown, like that integration of the Hot Springs swimming pool. Later the following year, as a young Yale Law School student, he routinely sat at the "black table" in the school cafeteria, with Bill Coleman, Lani Guinier, and others. He identified with the black students, particularly the southerners, and shared a beach house with Coleman.
As a maverick young attorney general in Arkansas in the mid-1970s, Clinton brought a wave of young attorneys to the state, many of them blacks and women. As governor, he appointed more blacks to state boards and commissions than all the other governors in the state's history combined, and he appointed the first black to the Arkansas Supreme Court. His commitment was not token: he and his wife would send their only child to the predominantly black Horace Mann School in Little Rock.
Longtime Clinton observer and reporter John Brummett credited Clinton's gubernatorial tenure as showing, above all, his "uncanny ability to connect and empathize with all people, especially blacks."
When, on a bright autumn day in October 1991, Clinton stood with his family by his side on the steps of the Old State House and announced his intention to run for the presidency, he mentioned the issue of race once -- by acknowledging that southerners had been "divided by race too long."
On the corner outside the statehouse that morning, an aging Orval Faubus, Clinton's predecessor and the Little Rock Nine's protagonist, had assembled a makeshift vendor's booth to sell one of his books. The contrast between the two men and their two eras was as stark as the candidacy of a young southerner, deeply committed to ideals of racial equality, who nevertheless was about to embrace the Southern Strategy.
The Southern Strategist
A dangerously polarizing tactic had emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century. First identified by Stan Greenberg in 1985, so-called wedge issues and wedge politics have divided the Democratic party, motivating a large number of working-class whites to vote Republican. But the "racism wedge" as such -- exploiting the fault line of race and racism in politics -- was not especially new. It operated virulently under slavery, flourished in the populist era, and created problems in FDR's New Deal coalition.
Racial issues have created some of the most effective political wedges, particularly in the South. Manifestations of racism have devolved from slavery to lynching to segregation to code words, but the pervasiveness of its effects have helped to shape one of the most entrenched and notorious of presidential campaign strategies -- the Southern Strategy.
Fifty years before Clinton's era, Strom Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina, launched a campaign against incumbent President Truman, first on the Democrats' convention floor in 1948, and later as an independent candidate of the States' Rights Party. Thurmond's "Dixiecrats" coalesced around a number of issues, but perpetuation of racial segregation was the core. Their dander was up over Truman's efforts at equality, notably his move to integrate the armed forces. The Dixiecrats won four states in the '48 general election, all in the Deep South, marking the beginning of the shift in voting patterns among white southerners. For the next thirty years, a series of Republican and independent candidates from George Wallace to David Duke crafted overtly racist campaigns aimed at conservative white southern voters.
Party realignment, after a century of steady Democratic victories, has given Republican presidential candidates a powerful base of support in the South. When Eisenhower won the Oval Office, 85 percent of white southerners were Democrats. By 1998, Republicans held a slight majority among registered voters in the region. Richard Nixon helped usher in this metamorphosis. In an effort to gain the GOP's presidential nomination in 1968, he forged the so-called Southern Strategy to counter the potential loss of right-of-center white southern voters to Alabama's George Wallace.
Sensing the shifts in the South, Nixon made a tactical decision not to spend money on the black vote, there or elsewhere, but to spend considerable time and money reminding voters that the Democratic party was the party of black Americans. He cleverly aligned himself with southern segregationists of both parties, chiefly Thurmond and Mississippi senators James Eastland and John Stennis. "Here was the birth of the Southern strategy," wrote political journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, "conceived in necessity...and gradually taking on the trappings of grand political doctrine."
During his 1968 campaign Nixon appealed to southern whites by calling for a "reinterpretation" with "all deliberate speed" of the Brown v. Board of Education mandate to integrate schools. Fending off Nixon, the Wallace forces won forty-six electoral votes and almost 10 million popular votes, nearly all in southern states. Wallace's campaign also brought Ku Klux Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and far-right activists into electoral politics for the first time. In 1972, again deploying the Southern Strategy, Nixon trounced George Wallace with a more nuanced "law and order" message.
In the post-civil-rights era, overt racism went underground, but it was no less pervasive. Politicians mastered the use of racial code words such as Nixon's law and order, along with others such as welfare queens, inner city, at-risk, poverty, crime, and quotas. Even color-blind had become a code for assaults on affirmative action.
To black Americans, these subtextual code words and symbols were like oil on fire. Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier suggested that they were loaded with racial innuendo and resentment. In an age of political correctness, sociologist Jerry Himelstein called these phrases "rhetorical winks," in that they communicate the message but allow the speaker to disavow the interpretation. Nobel Prizewinning author Toni Morrison went even further, defining these racial symbols as having no meaning "other than pressing African-Americans to the lowest level of the racial hierarchy."
Jimmy Carter, the only winning Democrat to confront the Southern Strategy before Clinton, was attuned to the coded language of race. Having grown up in a mixed-race environment, he did not race-bait during his presidential campaign. His campaign manifesto, Why Not the Best?, included numerous accounts of his personal and political efforts to alleviate racism in Georgia's Jim Crow days. He rounded up southern black leaders, including Martin Luther King Sr., Coretta Scott King, and Andrew Young to visibly support his candidacy.
But Carter did not commit himself during his presidential campaign to alleviating injustices, reasoning that he was positioning himself to do something during his administration. Despite his unfortunate use of the term ethnic purity to describe white-ethnic enclaves in neighborhood schools -- calculated, some say, to gain the Wallace vote in Texas, Missouri, and Georgia -- black voters delivered the margin of victory to the Georgian in 1976 in twelve states. Most white voters that year again came out for the Republicans and Gerry Ford.
Reagan in 1980 extended the Southern Strategy by urging working- and middle-class whites to abandon their black counterparts and align themselves with upper-middle-class whites. Strategists carefully built on a nascent feeling among working-class whites that the real enemies of Democrats were no longer big business and the very rich, but rather big government and the very poor. During the Reagan years, Republicans selectively targeted federal spending on vulnerable programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In 1984, Reagan won every southern state by a margin of at least 15 percent against Walter Mondale.
The Southern Strategy again showed its perennial staying power when, in the spring of 1988, Lee Atwater, a Strom Thurmond protégé and George Bush's campaign manager, asked campaign researcher Jim Pinkerton to come up with a short list of issues to portray Michael Dukakis as outside the mainstream. Pinkerton came up with five items: Dukakis vetoed a bill supporting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools; he was a member of the ACLU; Boston Harbor was polluted; he favored gun control. But the fifth item was to become the sharp wedge Atwater needed to portray Dukakis in a damning light: Willie Horton. Black and a murderer, Horton won a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts jail and brutally raped a white woman and beat her fiancé. For campaign purposes, this event was silhouetted against a backdrop of skyrocketing crime rates in the cities. Atwater later claimed that his job was to "convince Americans that Horton was Dukakis's running mate."
The Southern Strategy, now consolidating the "Reagan Democrats," steadily chipped away at the Democratic New Deal coalition by siphoning off crucial white male voters. Over the past thirty years, the Republicans have insistently, if sometimes clandestinely, portrayed the Democrats as a party of undesirables: the poor, foreigners, homosexuals, and blacks. So much so that, according to some scholars, virtually all progressive symbols and themes had been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.
In 1992, Clinton deliberately sidestepped the issues of race, class, and abortion that had divided the Democratic party since 1964. Seeking protective cover, Clinton and his advisers looked for issues that would not split their traditional base and would halt their eroding numbers among white southerners. They knew that in states with the largest black populations they needed only 30 to 35 percent of the white vote to win, because they could count on 90 percent of the black vote. But it was also true that in such states, the white vote was much harder to secure: states with a greater proportion of blacks seemed to produce more hard-core white conservatives. Even Jesse Jackson's share of the white vote in 1988 was greater in states with the fewest African-Americans.
Thus, at the same time as white Democratic voters waned, black voters became crucial in Democratic primaries and general elections. Blacks were consistently more liberal than their white counterparts. Indeed, as political scientist Ronald Walters has documented, the Democratic party would have lost every presidential election from 1968 to the present if only whites had voted.
But the need to hold on to black voters presented a vexing problem to Clinton's centrist strategy: no group in the United States is more consistently liberal than African-Americans. Since the early 1950s, blacks have held mainly progressive views on most issues. Blacks' liberalism is greater than that of any other group in America.
And the leftward movement of the black population has occurred "not only on the issues of central importance to blacks -- school integration and increased attention to black problems -- but on issues of foreign policy and scope of government as well. Thus, while black voters have become increasing liberal, all other populations except Jews have become increasingly more conservative," noted Walters. The need to address policy concerns of African-Americans pushed the Democrats more leftward and, to some degree, Republicans more rightward.
The Clinton campaign needed to walk a tightrope, holding on to its black base without any concrete promises and at the same time attempting to attract southern voters who had been steadily Republicanized. Thus the white vote in the Deep South became a test of masterful manipulation of subtextual messages. Clinton, the passionate believer in and defender of equality and racial justice, felt forced to adopt a pragmatic stance with respect to race during the campaign. Like Carter, Clinton rounded up the early support of all the moderate black southern politicians -- Mike Epsy of Mississippi, John Lewis of Georgia, William J. Jefferson of Louisiana.
Clinton was appalled by Stanley Greenberg's earlier study of Democratic party defectors in Macomb County, Michigan, once a stalwart base of Democratic votes. What united Macomb's residents, suffering from a downturn in the automobile industry, was a "distaste for blacks," Greenberg found. Whites felt that "blacks constitute the explanation for their [whites'] vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live." Dick Morris, also examining Macomb, concluded that "Democrats were hurt because they were perceived as too close to minorities."
Morris and Greenberg warned of the danger Clinton faced by aligning himself too specifically with blacks. The candidate heeded their advice. Judged from the primaries onward, racial issues were virtually absent from the 1992 campaign discourse. The Clinton/Gore campaign platform in book form, Putting People First, detailed thirty-one "crucial issues" in alphabetical order from "Agriculture" to "Women." "Race" failed to make the list. The "Civil Rights" section gave more ink to "sexual preference" and "physical disabilities" than to racism. The only campaign promise articulated under "Civil Rights" was to "oppose racial quotas."
So, as race disappeared from Clinton's campaign agenda, the threat of the Southern Strategy on other issues still had to be contended with forcefully. Clinton's advisers and consultants believed he had to walk a very thin line to demonstrate that he was not soft on welfare or crime. The Clintonites seized upon several events that might "send a message" to southern voters.
During the period in the primaries when his campaign was struck hard with allegations about Gennifer Flowers, Clinton left New Hampshire to fly back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Rickey Rector, a black brain-injured cop-killer. Having commuted the death sentences of thirty-eight first-degree murderers in his first term as governor, Clinton did not now want to be seen as soft on crime. After winning back the governorship in 1982, he set execution days for twenty-four death-row inmates. "Poor ole Rickey Rector's timing just happened to be real bad," said a defense attorney.
And one wonders how Clinton the idealist must have felt on March 2, the day before three primaries, when Clinton the pragmatist posed for press photographers with Georgia senator Sam Nunn at the Stone Mountain Correctional Facility. It was not lost on some southerners that Stone Mountain, Georgia, is the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. In the background stood a formation of mostly black prisoners. "Two white men and forty black prisoners, what's he saying?" asked Jerry Brown. "He's saying, we got 'em under control folks, don't worry." Was golfing at a segregated country club two weeks later a lapse in values or a stealth message under the radar screen to white Americans?
As the campaign heated up, Clinton then deployed a tactic he had deftly used in Arkansas -- counterscheduling. "He was a genius at counterscheduling," said longtime Arkansas reporter John Brummett. The tactic involved picking a fight with a friendly audience to send a broader message to people who don't care for the politics of that audience.
Clinton's speech supporting NAFTA to the AFL-CIO convention was a counterscheduling opportunity. More notable was his attack on Sister Souljah in a speech to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Rapper Souljah had been quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Clinton rebuked Souljah and equated her racism with David Duke's. His message, widely viewed as disrespectful of Jesse Jackson and the Coalition, was of course aimed at the television audience, not the Rainbow Coalition members at the conference. While not acknowledging that the Souljah attack was intentional, James Carville admitted that the "campaign had wanted to bait a prominent African-American." And their timing was not accidental; Clinton's other rare appearances at black events were intentionally scheduled to be too late for the evening news or otherwise subsumed by larger events.
As the campaign rolled to a close, Clinton's approach proved to be effective -- at least in securing the White House. He had beaten the Republicans at their own game, and few could plausibly deny it was a tactical and strategic victory. He had zigged and zagged through the subliminal bog of American consciousness and bigotry and had won.
At the end of the election season, Clinton acknowledged that he had run a "foxlike campaign, but he planned to be a lionlike president." In many ways he was forced into positions and strategies that were not his doing. The Democratic party had been edging rightward since early 1977 when Carter made balancing the budget his top priority and social programs, job training, and welfare spending were drastically cut. Now, in 1992, Clinton had to patch together the northern Democrats and the southern Blue Dogs. Now he had to transform his carefully calculated electoral coalition into a governing coalition.
Not long after Bill Clinton's election and his subsequent default on her nomination to a high-ranking Justice Department post, Lani Guinier published a revealing opinion editorial in the New York Times. In it, she forgave the sins of the Southern Strategy by reasoning, "Perhaps election campaigns are not the best opportunity to turn the nation's attention back to the unfinished agenda of race relations."
But she stopped short of letting the President off the hook: "What is missing from public discourse is a vision of the future in which society commits itself to working through, rather than running from, our racial history and racial present. What is missing is leadership."
Leadership. Part of the test of great presidents since at least Abraham Lincoln has been the capacity to exercise bold leadership in confronting America's racial history. At the outset of his administration, the once pragmatic Lincoln was to some degree an apologist for slavery. He spoke of the "physical differences" between the races and opposed social and political equality for whites and blacks. He also opposed black-white intermarriages, black service on juries, black public-office-holding, black citizenship, and black suffrage. He supported colonization of Liberia by freed slaves and at times sought an end to slavery simply to destroy the Confederacy's workforce and boost northern morale and troop strength.
But in the throes of the "fiery conflict" he came to see the great "sin of slavery," and in his second inaugural address he declared that if it were "God's will...every drop of blood drawn from the lash shall be paid for another drawn by the sword." First and foremost, he wanted to preserve the Union, but he also sensed that his moral act of ending slavery would in the end mark his presidency. "If my name ever goes into history," he confided to the cabinet members and officials gathered around him as he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, "it will be for this act." Lincoln was later to say that creating a sense of national unity, a unity including the newly freed slaves, was America's "unfinished work."
For a quarter century after the Civil War, some presidents followed Lincoln's example and exercised leadership on the slavery issue, seeking to ease the new citizens' transition to freedom. In his 1881 inaugural address, President Garfield, himself a veteran of the Civil War, envisioned, "Fifty years hence our children will...surely bless their fathers and their fathers' God that...slavery was overthrown and that both races were made equal before the law." He used his inaugural address to send a tough message to white supremacists that there would be no compromise between slavery and equal citizenship, and that the nation would "permit no permanently disfranchised peasantry."
The abandonment of Reconstruction, however, brought a half century of presidential reticence, as presidents from Rutherford Hayes to FDR either avoided racial issues or indulged in high-sounding shibboleths.
True, Franklin Roosevelt did set up the Fair Employment Practice Committee, but only as a response to a threatened march on Washington by black leaders. And certainly Eleanor Roosevelt served as a back channel and advocate to the President for civil rights. She took her own public moral stands too, resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution over their denial of the use of Constitution Hall to singer Marian Anderson, writing a My Day column about it, and later joining Anderson at her Lincoln Memorial performance. Though American blacks had turned Lincoln's portrait to the wall and flocked to the Democratic party in the 1930s, they were not fully dealt into the New Deal. Roosevelt's deference to powerful southern senators kept him from effective leadership.
It took Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, to belatedly bring issues of race to the twentieth century. At the outset, though, Truman's civil rights credentials were viewed with suspicion. During the 1944 campaign, a leading black journal had even accused the Missourian of being a Klan member. He was to prove everyone wrong by his leadership and action in the area of civil rights. Speaking in 1947 at the Lincoln Memorial to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Truman early on championed antilynching laws. The first president ever to address the NAACP, he spoke in typically Trumanesque, blunt terms. "When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans. Many of our people still suffer the indignity of insult, the harrowing dread of intimidation, and I regret to say, the threat of physical and mob violence."
Truman was not simply a rhetorical president; he acted. He oversaw efforts to desegregate the army and appointed the first presidential blue-ribbon task force on civil rights. The task force findings so enraged segregationists that thirty-five delegates from the Deep South bolted from the 1948 Democratic presidential convention to form the States' Rights Party.
During the ensuing Eisenhower administration, the Supreme Court struck down segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education, a case submitted in 1952 by Truman's Justice Department. Hardly supporting this carryover from his predecessor, Ike resented the intrusion of the Truman agenda and instructed his attorney general to write a brief that "took no position on segregation, pro or con." Eisenhower had of course used federal troops to force integration in Little Rock's Central High School, but he hardly embraced or advocated better race relations. He took no action in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, nor in the University of Alabama desegregation fight, claiming "in some things, I am more of a states' righter." He was silent on the lynching of Emmett Till, the Rodney King of the 1950s.
John F. Kennedy, vowing a fresh approach to discrimination, took on George Wallace in Alabama schools, finding that civil rights "was a moral issue...as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the Constitution." Calling upon the moral authority of the presidency, he condemned racism in all its forms and wielded his executive power to dismantle discrimination in voting, the federal civil service, public facilities, private-sector employment, and housing. He introduced to the Congress the most important civil rights legislation in a century. Still, Kennedy benefited from Mohandas Gandhi's style of "leading by following," for much of civil rights reform was accomplished by a strong grassroots movement from outside Washington.
A week before his first presidential election, Bill Clinton was asked to name his presidential heroes. "Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Truman, and Kennedy," he responded. How would he approach the deep chasm of race in this country? Would he feel constrained, as FDR did, by the powerful forces of the status quo? Or would he be transformed, as Lincoln was, by his experience as president and grasp some elusive truth and make the country whole again? Or take to the bully pulpit, as Teddy Roosevelt did, and educate and cajole citizens back to that greatest of American values, equality. Or perhaps he had in mind the example of Truman, who would slowly but surefootedly heal the brutal practices of the past? Time would tell.
In her book The Tyranny of the Majority, Lani Guinier complimented Lyndon Johnson for his legacy of leadership for black Americans. When she pleaded for more leadership from Clinton in healing the racial divide, she might have suggested he turn to Johnson, another southerner, as his exemplar. Although not in Clinton's pantheon of presidential heroes, Johnson did more for black America than any other president since Lincoln. Seizing the moral capital in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and negotiating with King and others for their support, LBJ kept his part of the bargain and pushed forward on the civil rights agenda from the first days of his presidency.
Johnson did not have to wait for the polls or the focus groups. Not long after JFK's death, he met with six major civil rights leaders -- Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Andrew Young, John Lewis, and James Farmer. Johnson wanted not only to talk about getting a civil rights bill through Congress, but also to work with them throughout his term. In March of 1965, putting his political capital at risk and alienating many representatives from the South, he addressed a joint session of Congress and urged members to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signaling his own identification with civil rights protesters, he ended his speech with words from the most famous refrain from that era -- a fiery "and we shall overcome. We shall overcome." He personally championed the ultimately successful 1965 legislation, and later he took on the Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968 and wrote the executive order creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He pushed through the War on Poverty and ultimately his Great Society through sheer force of will, backed by both a Democratic majority in Congress and a strong civil rights movement. His actions had their transactional features, but there was little doubt of their ultimate force. Johnson's efforts were acts of transforming leadership -- clear, intended, planned change that would produce measurable results for decades to come.
On September 18, 1998, a little noted but still remarkable report was released to the public. For fifty-two years the President's Council of Economic Advisers has delivered its Economic Report to the President. Ordinarily dry and analytical, it is read closely by bond traders, Wall Street analysts, and by scholars trying to decipher the causes of income inequality.
This edition of the report was astonishing because for the first time it included a new chapter assessing the extent of income inequality among racial and ethnic groups. Commissioned to provide reliable data to the President's Initiative on Race, it struck a blow at conservatives, notably Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom. The Thernstroms had insisted in a recent book that contrary to the liberal view, the gap between blacks and whites had closed and the country should be focusing on celebrating its accomplishments with respect to race.
The report documented the rise in black earnings from 1965 to 1975 -- credited to Johnson's civil rights legislation, and certainly cause for celebration. But in the years since 1975, the income of black families made no substantial increase compared to white families. In 1998, almost one-third of all black Americans lived in poverty, a figure triple the rate of whites. While during the Clinton administration the unemployment rate for blacks reached an all-time low, it still remained twice as high as that for whites. And the racial disparity was evident in every indicator: in education, in infant mortality, in heart disease, and housing. It was a litany as remarkable as it was painful. What had Clinton done about it?
In part, he wielded his power of appointment. Naming nonwhites to prominent administration posts would be one way to visibly demonstrate that African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and others were capable of making positive contributions and of leading.
Clinton had hit the ground running in late 1992 and early 1993 on his pledge for a government that "looks like America." One of his first acts as President-elect was to appoint Vernon Jordan, Madeline Kunin, and Warren Christopher to coordinate the White House transition. They in turn set up multiracial cluster teams to conduct interdepartmental reviews of the executive agencies. Clinton insisted that the directors of these cluster teams reflect gender and racial diversity, and he accomplished his aims: there were seven men and three women, including six whites, three blacks, and one Hispanic.
The cabinet selection process was tightly held, however, and no person of color sat in the inner circle of those deciding. Still, five black cabinet secretaries were nominated. Two of these, at Commerce and Agriculture, were first-evers.
Bruce Lindsey, Clinton's longtime friend, took charge of the next round of political appointments and managed to diversify these top positions. In the first six months of the administration, 34 percent of the top appointments went to women, 15 percent to blacks, 8 percent to Hispanics, and 2 percent to Asians. A solid 13 percent of all of Clinton's initial presidential appointments were black. At the beginning of his second term, the commitment to diversity still endured: there were three black cabinet secretaries, and the acting surgeon general, Audrey Manley, was black. Hispanics Federico PeÑa and Bill Richardson also held prominent posts -- PeÑa at Energy and Richardson as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The first-term appointments to the White House staff, by contrast, were almost exclusively white, especially in the West Wing. Eleven of the sixteen top positions went to white males, although the next level reflected considerable diversity. Harvard Law professor Christopher Edley Jr. noted that within the Office of the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Council on Environmental Quality there were nearly 750 staffers, yet not one of these appointees was an African-American or Hispanic-American, and only one was Asian-American.
Still, all in all, with the notable exception of the White House staff, the administration made good on Clinton's promise of diverse leadership. He appointed more African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans to cabinet positions and other high posts than any of his forty-one predecessors.
Less visible, but significant in its long-term impact, Clinton transformed the federal judiciary by appointing more women and minorities to the federal bench than any other president -- and more than the last two presidents combined. Criticized as window dressing, his judicial appointments received from the American Bar Association a higher rating than any other administration's.
Clinton, the president who sought image and symbol, appeared to begin his new administration with a vigorous commitment to including nonwhite Americans, particularly black Americans, symbolically and substantively. Examining his two White House terms, however, his executive and legislative record puzzled civil rights advocates and to some degree contradicted his remarkable appointment record. His presidential performance on race was perplexing from a left-right perspective. A centrist, he spanned the political spectrum with no identifiable philosophical or ideological moorings. Where was true north?
Early on in his White House stint, Clinton raised the minimum wage, a standard test of liberal leanings. He increased tax credits for the "working poor" through the Earned Income Tax Credit Act. Head Start funding, an old liberal stalwart, was to some extent pitched to blacks. But Clinton's crime and welfare reform bills were centrist Democratic Leadership Council ideas lifted from the Republicans and appealed most directly to whites. This back-and-forth string of legislation kept the congressional Black Caucus from solidifying its own legislative agenda. A protracted effort on the part of the administration to woo votes for the welfare-to-work bill yielded only two from the thirty-nine African-American members of Congress.
The congressional schism spilled out into the ring of think tanks and advocacy groups circling the Capitol. The welfare reform bill of Clinton's first term was publicly and sharply criticized by Clinton's close friend Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, on the grounds that it would "leave poor minority children out in the dust." To many, Clinton's was an appalling act of cowardice. But he took the criticism in stride, commenting that Edelman "was sincere and honest in her position and I'm sincere and honest in mine. And time will see who was right."
But what exactly was his position? There was considerable evidence that though personally and empathetically attuned to black Americans, Clinton was more aligned politically with a neoliberal approach to race. Philosophically he supported class-based criteria for social policy rather than race-based ones. Growing up in the South, Clinton knew too many poor white southerners in the Ozarks and elsewhere to buy into the prevailing stereotype that poverty was predominately a black problem.
A class-based approach to inequality too would explain the lack of explicit reference to race or civil rights in his campaign documents. His campaign pronouncements about the "truly disadvantaged" and the "working poor" were a seductive chimera to the civil rights generation, but in truth were indicative of his class-based predisposition. Yes, at times on the campaign trail he was more forthright about his philosophy, as when he told a reporter, "This country has to be healed. We're divided. It's not just white and black and brown -- it's middle class and upper class and poor." But the interview was published in a southern newspaper, shortly before Super Tuesday, 1992, and was entirely consistent with his Southern Strategy.
Nor did his class-based approach change during his presidential tenure. Sociologist Nathan Glazer reflected that it was surprising that a fierce national debate over affirmative action not only persisted but intensified during the Clinton years. Yet, Clinton almost certainly opposed the premise of affirmative action, if not the politics of it. Clinton's view had always been color-blind, or as he said, "race-neutral."
The neoliberal approach, however, while having obvious strategic and possibly ideological advantages, did not attend to deep-seated structural racial conflicts in the United States. Many objected to a purely class-based agenda, as it failed to adequately address continued racism, racial hostility, segregation, institutional discrimination, and white privilege.
Perhaps Clinton was ahead of his time and of himself. "Can political will be summoned to pursue a strategy of making skin color less relevant in public life?" importuned scholar and presidential friend William Julius Wilson. Historians of the future may see Clinton as a neoliberal, neo-civil-rights radical, taking up Martin Luther King Jr.'s unfinished work toward an economic justice that transcends race. At the time of his assassination, King "was organizing a multiracial Poor People's Campaign around economic and peace issues -- jobs and economic justice at home and peace abroad in Vietnam," noted Jesse Jackson. Clinton's approach to race as President, seen from this perspective, was at least a powerful attempt at the first White House transracial agenda on poverty since the enactment of 1960s civil rights legislation.
But while strong presidential leadership could potentially have created coalitions and bridges across the racial divide, no such coalition -- not even Jackson's Rainbow -- had ever been sustained in the past. Such a coalition would take an act of transforming leadership on the order of the New Deal. It would take political capital, moral standing, and the political will of Lincoln. Did Clinton have the will? The answer appeared to be no.
The priorities of presidents are reflected in their budgets. To what ends would Bill Clinton allocate the nation's financial resources? To talk about priorities was one thing; to budget for them quite another. Budgets in Clinton's first term included a number of proposals that impacted black Americans, but they existed under the rubric of "urban," "empowerment," and other class-based strategies. Clinton and his team knew full well of research that race-targeted programs were not the best way to gain support from white Americans. They had mastered the "don't ask, don't tell" strategy of racial empowerment.
Not until Clinton's second term did he frame issues in specifically racial terms. His plan on this score included six broad goals, all related to race, and all earning a position in the White House budget: policy action, constructive dialogue, highlighting promising practices, recruiting leaders, establishing an advisory board, and producing a report on race. When a summary of the accomplishments of the plan in each of the six areas was released in November 1998, the silhouette that emerged was one of tinkering rather than transforming.
The policy action successes, for instance, included increases in funding in civil rights enforcement to a multitude of federal agencies, as well as increases in block grants for child care and after-school programs. Some twenty-seven other items, exuberantly itemized as "High Hopes for America's Youth," "Opportunity Areas for Out of School Youth," "Expanded Youth-build," and "Play-by-the-Rules Home Ownership Initiative," sprinkled money in an array of actions, all destined to deliver incremental assistance.
The money, for the most part, was funneled to enforcement efforts of existing programs. Unlike under LBJ, there were no legislative milestones or executive acts creating entities to address racial disparities or inequities. No Great Societies or Wars on Poverty. No Voting Rights Acts or Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions.
In his second term, Clinton's most publicized efforts at healing the racial divide assumed the form of the President's Initiative on Race, a series of meetings and venues structured around an idea originally proposed by Lani Guinier in her plea to him for "more leadership."
Launched in June of 1997 and described in media accounts as an effort to lead the country in a national conversation about race, the Initiative on Race was initially viewed with suspicion by all sides. Some claimed that all the Initiative members were supporters of affirmative action. A group of prominent conservative activists and scholars countered by announcing their own panel on race relations, chaired by Ward Connerly, architect of California's Proposition 209, an effort to turn back the clock on affirmative action.
Some felt that action and not talk was needed. Others complained that the Initiative focused too much on black-white issues, to the exclusion of Hispanic-Americans' or Asian-Americans' concerns. Still others predicted that the work itself would create divisiveness, for according to Roper polls, the state of race relations was a central concern for African-Americans but not for most whites. Indeed, the effort almost disintegrated into a morass of intergroup and political problems at the outset, but recovered some of its footing under the direction of its chair, historian John Hope Franklin.
In these forums, the President used his platform to paint a picture of the future, attempting to prepare citizens for the demographic and social changes they would encounter in the decades ahead. "I think we ought to be thinking about this not only today," he intoned in late 1997, "but what we're going to look like over the next thirty or forty years. Most Americans have not come to grips with the fact that within fifty years at the outside, there will be no single racial or ethnic group that will be in a majority in the United States."
He was right. Most Americans had not only not come to grips with the future, few knew the facts about the present. Despite decades of studies, reports, and media stories documenting disparities between whites and blacks, a great deal of misinformation persisted. More than four in ten white Americans still believed, incorrectly, that the average African-American was at least as well off as the average white. Forty-five percent believed, also incorrectly, that more poor people in the United States were black than white. And 58 percent of whites believed, again incorrectly, that more recipients of public assistance were black than white.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the President's Initiative on Race was Clinton's own willingness to explore the issue from a "white" point of view. But even this was no epiphany for him. Shortly after the 1992 election, at a secret Camp David retreat of senior staff members, the question came up about the southern, white, male, blue-collar voters who were so problematic in the election. Rodham Clinton was the first to speak, sharply arguing, "Screw them. Let's move on." But Clinton disagreed and prevailed: "Those bubbas, I grew up with them. I understand them. I know what they're going through. We can't win this thing unless the bubbas are respected too."
What was new was the President's willingness to discuss race so often and so publicly. According to Clinton, "Whites were not racist to say that a culture of welfare, illegitimacy, and absentee fathers cannot be broken by social programs unless there is first a more personal responsibility. Nor were they racist to shun neighborhoods where thugs carry guns like Old West desperadoes."
It was a laudable and herculean task, one the President took on vigorously but too late. A race initiative launched in his first term, when he had a Democratic Congress and the goodwill of the country, might have set the stage to mobilize Americans around the issue of racial reconciliation. As it was, in the second term, the nation's conversation about race was barely heard above the fussings of the Republican Congress and the squalling of the Monica S. Lewinsky imbroglio. The President lost the ability and credibility to move his race agenda forward in the media or the grass roots.
If his legislative leadership on race seemed sparse, it was probably because Clinton fundamentally did not see legislation as the best approach to changing deeply held beliefs. Racial problems, he asserted, "demand an individual, not a governmental solution."
In a major speech on affirmative action at the National Archives, the President hit hard with his view that laws do not change society, that "old habits and thinking patterns" are to blame, and that "this is work that has to be done by every single one of you."
But if Clinton had closely examined LBJ's efforts on race, he might have discovered data suggesting that behaviors do create new attitudes, not the reverse. Before Johnson's time, the black poverty rate was an unconscionable 87 percent. Sixty-four percent of black women worked as domestic servants. Yet only 45 percent of whites thought that African-Americans should "have as good a chance as white people to get any kind of job." Less than one-half thought blacks were "as intelligent as white people."
After Johnson's time, in the wake of the Great Society's antipoverty and pro-civil-rights initiatives, 97 percent of whites said they believed blacks should have equal opportunities to get a job and 80 percent of whites believed blacks were of equal intelligence. This seemed a prescription for more presidential action and exhortations, not less.
Since Teddy Roosevelt's time, the rhetorical and symbolic aspects of presidential leadership have gained importance, partly because of the vast expansion of the media and partly because of the failure of bipartisan legislative leadership. The president, Roosevelt said, should be the "steward of the people." Woodrow Wilson extended the rhetorical role by establishing the presidency as the "guiding force of the nation." If race were indeed the country's deepest chasm, then why couldn't Bill Clinton, this son of the South, be such a force, the repairer of the breach?
His background -- seeing his grandfather operate a color-blind store, protesting the whites-only swimming pool in Hot Springs, driving through riot-torn Washington, D.C., in the wake of King's assassination -- sensitized him to issues of race and enabled him to talk intelligently and emotionally to both blacks and whites. He had lived through, and participated in, some of the greatest struggles of his generation.
Strong leaders are guided by moral and ideological compasses. They know where true north lies and how to find it when the night is dark, the way treacherous, and the enemies plentiful. The great divides of the past called for and were addressed not just by legal and legislative action, but by strong exhortations and appeals to conscience and justice, many emanating from the White House itself. The Johnson era delivered economic and political empowerment for blacks -- and over time public attitudes on race changed for the better.
The work of racial reconciliation is no easy task, and no president can be expected to undo four hundred years of inequality in eight White House years. "I expect this to be a central part of my work in the next two years and a central part of the work I do for the rest of my life," Clinton noted in 1998.
Through his cabinet appointments, his clandestine budget maneuvers, and perhaps most of all through his Initiative on Race, Clinton sought to address racism and racial inequality more than any other president in the past twenty-five years. He did not have to appoint so many blacks or Hispanics to his cabinet. He was reelected in 1996 long before announcing his race initiative. And blacks appeared likely to continue to support him. "Black Americans know that Clinton is the only thing that stands between them and Newt -- or worse," noted scholar Ronald Walters. So to tackle these issues in the first place took courage.
But in tossing his hat into the race ring, Clinton failed to capitalize on two important lessons that had emerged from the civil rights battles of his youth. First, that transformational change can come about, even when it confronts violent and vocal resistance -- as from the whites of the South who fought racial integration. And second, that leadership efforts benefit from good timing. Part of the success of the civil rights movement of Clinton's generation was due to the cold war and America's need -- in the face of that global confrontation with communism and a world that watched keenly -- to make good on democracy's promises of equality.
Clinton had also misjudged Americans' relationship to their elected leaders. Again, as the sixties made plain, Americans would tolerate change -- radical change -- if leaders articulated values and visions consistently and succeeded in conveying a sense of urgency. Clinton did neither. His pursuit of racial justice was itself centrist.
In the end, Clinton was content to tinker, when he had had a genuine opportunity to transform.
Copyright © 1999 by Simon & Schuster
Meet the Author
James MacGregor Burns, Ph.D., is the author of noted studies of presidents and other political leaders. As senior scholar, he teaches and researches leadership at The James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland in College Park, and is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Williams College.
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