R.Reese, Daily Bulletin, November 22, 1998, B5
I recently heard a joke that suggested that Bill Clinton was the nation's first African American president. I laughed then thought about context of this joke. In the African American community Clinton is often characterized as smooth, ghetto tough, and someone who is consistently vilified by the system. Maybe this qualifies him. In the 1996 Presidential Elections, African Americans supported the President with 84 percent of the vote. Today, African Americans continue to overwhelmingly support Clinton. After the Kenneth Starr Report was released, a CNN/USA Today Poll reported African Americans giving the President an approval rating of 90%. Only seven percent of African Americans polled favored impeachment for the President's improprieties.
On an episode of Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, the legendary music producer, Quincy Jones, stated that no other president in his lifetime has been able to connect and relate to the African American experience like Clinton. Perhaps this connection is best captured in the movie, Primary Colors, starring John Travolta as a president clearly intended to parody Clinton. In this movie, the president is depicted as a person who grows up with African Americans in a small Southern town and becomes intimately connected to the black experience.
Why is President Clinton so popular among African Americans?
For one thing, blacks have concluded that his empathy is not just rhetoric. In his two administrations, he has appointed more African Americans to cabinet posts than all of the previous U.S. Presidents combined. Among them: Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan E. Rice. His only appointments for the position of Surgeon General have been African Americans (Jocelyn Elders and the current surgeon general, David Satcher). No president before Lyndon Johnson appointed any black to the Cabinet. Only four African Americans have served on Cabinets since Johnson and prior to Clinton's first election. Indeed, Clinton has surrounded himself with African Americans. His policy initiatives have been sensitive to this community. He still supports some form of affirmative action. Although he ultimately supported the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, he resisted dynamic changes in welfare policies and was uneasy about the passage of this bill. He was the first American president to initiate a national dialogue on race relations in America. He was also the first American president to tour Africa.
Administratively, he relies on his personal secretary Betty Currie. Socially, he considers Vernon Jordan to be his closest friend. Spiritually, he seeks guidance from, among others, African American ministers such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson. His comfort with African Americans is easily seen when he is in a black church clapping his hands and bobbing his head as he sings old Negro Spirituals by memory.
Perhaps the biggest reason African American support for Clinton is unwavering is that blacks can identify with what some deem as the perpetual mistreatment of the President. The African American community is known to rally around its own in a time of crisis. These days, this community seems to be once again rallying to support one of their own.