This month, which also happens to be Black History Month, is no exception to the rules of nature. It offers no exemption from human nature, not so long as color blinds our ability to see character, not so long as our mutuality as sinners minimizes the worst sins against people of color. We are not, however, all guilty of the same sin: the exploitation of black lives for political power.
So long as there are politicians like Bill Clinton, there will be black prisoners to execute or exhibit. So long as politicians use the calendar to not only evade controversy but to escape it, injustice will persist. So long as executions are on the calendar, politicians will choose consistency over conscience. So long as criminals shock the conscience of voters, politicians will do the unconscionable. But no politician played the calendar so well—no governor transformed four days in January into nine January’s as president—like Bill Clinton, when, to spare the citizens of Arkansas the cost of a long-distance call from Little Rock to New Hampshire, to give switchboard operators at Southwestern Bell and NYNEX a reprieve, he returned to the governor’s mansion to pull the switch—to have prison staff insert the needle, rather—on a self-lobotomized cop killer named Ricky Ray Rector.
It took 50 minutes to find Rector’s vein. Two days later, Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared on “60 Minutes” in a post-Super Bowl interview about their marriage. Whatever the state of their union, then or now, they said enough for Bill Clinton to become president, and deliver eight State of the Union addresses.
Whenever candidate Clinton was in trouble, he used the calendar to benefit his campaign at the expense of blacks. He chided them. He criticized them. He condemned them. He insulted them—and us—by denouncing a black female rapper; the supposition being, that more whites hate blacks than blacks hate whites; that regardless of who hates whom, what matters is what a white politician says to blacks—about blacks—so whites will vote for that politician.
That Clinton said what he said, while Jesse Jackson sat to his immediate left, that Clinton stood—and admonished the audience by raising his index finger—while Jackson sat with his hands under his chin, that Clinton said what he said, after Jerry Brown had said he would choose Jackson as his running mate, may not have been what voters wanted to hear—but it was what the media said Clinton had to say to win the White House.
Between Rector’s execution and Jackson’s humiliation, Clinton used the calendar to stage the most infamous photo-op of his campaign. Two days before the Georgia primary, with a trio of Democrats, all of them white, behind him and a pair of microphones in front of him, like a televangelist with a divining rod placed upright—with its wires wrapped around a serpentine stand—Clinton preached to a captive audience; he preached to voters by using black prisoners as a backdrop. He later said no one had a better civil rights than he did.
To prove it, Clinton visited the last surviving venue of the Chitlin’ Circuit at Stage 29 at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. There, where so much history had happened; where Steven Seagal called a former Army captain and recipient of the Bronze Star a “5-foot-2, fat, little male impersonator”; where Vanilla Ice talked about breaking the color barrier in hip hop; where Jason Voorhees, the slasher villain from the “Friday the 13th” horror franchise, said nothing; there, before a posse of musicians and a fist-pumping crowd chanting “woot woot woot,” Bill Clinton summoned the spirit of “Abraham, Martin and John” by way of playing a saxophone solo of “Heartbreak Hotel.” Then, he sat on Arsenio Hall’s couch.
It was an impressive—and spontaneous—performance, but for Clinton’s change of ties, his choice of music, his borrowed sunglasses, and his rehearsal with the band. It was his attempt to “recreate a sense of commonality, to try to cut through all the superficial bull that tends to dominate politics.”
Less impressive is how many people refuse to stop believing in Bill Clinton. With little rhythm and no soul, he won the support of blacks while bashing whites for what he alone did to specific blacks. He patronized them like children. He punished them like incorrigible children. He ordered the ultimate punishment against one of them, who also had the IQ of a child.
He disgraced all Americans.
Photo credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images