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Revanche and the First Black President

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AP Photo

There are certain stand out moments, like when South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson (R) screamed out "You lie!" when President Obama was presenting his health care plan to Congress in September 2009. Or more recently, there was the unprecedented instance of the Speaker of the House negotiating with a foreign head of state, behind the back of the President, to come to the House to advocate against the President's signature foreign policy initiative.

But the deeper pattern is one of persistent and pervasive denigration and - I hate jargon words like 'othering' but, well ... othering. We talk about the so-called "birther" controversy that at least among morons and racists dogged President Obama for years. But birtherism is better thought of as the clownish outlier of a more pervasive phenomenon. Even today you can routinely hear Republican presidential candidates telling crowds that President Obama doesn't believe in 'American exceptionalism', is trying to damage America, cut it down to size in favor of other countries, wants to make America more like other countries, is driven by hatred of America etc etc etc. President Obama is in so many ways, an outsider, an enemy who wants to hurt us, Americans.

This latest rebuke over the Court feels like another example of how Republicans have not simply opposed President Obama's policies - which is their right and if anything a sign of party discipline - but refuse to accord him the personal respect or respect for the office of President which has been accorded to every other chief executive. And yet for those of us who were adults in the 1990s, it is very hard not to see Republican opposition to Bill Clinton in at least a comparable light.

It is odd to think now, almost a generation after his presidency, after years in which Clinton was embraced as a beloved elder statesman and a sort of wizard of the political arts. But Republican hatred of President Clinton was so unbounded that in some respects it became their own undoing. Everyone remembers today that Clinton had approval numbers in the 60s for much of his second term in office; fewer remember that they only shot to those levels after the outbreak of the Lewinsky scandal and its peak moments.

His public approval was not simply because of the merits of his governance or the buoyant late 1990s economy. It was a public rebuke to Republican extremists who were intent on driving him from office over actions that most of the public found, at a minimum, embarrassing and unpresidential.

So is this something tied in a meaningful way to President Obama's skin color or is it something more general, tied to Republican opposition to a Democratic president? It's worth recalling this often nonsensical old line that Bill Clinton was the 'first black president.' I've often heard this line used by TV pundits as though there's some rivalry between Clinton and Obama over who is the 'first black president' or that anyone ever thought that Bill Clinton was in any sense ... well, actually black. The origin of the phrase has nothing to do with Clinton having an affinity for or rapport with black people or having a black soul, whatever the hell that might mean. The original meaning was altogether more bleak and brutal.

It starts with a Comment Toni Morrison wrote in The New Yorker in October 1998, as the Lewinsky carnival was trundling toward its Lord of the Flies-like conclusion. Morrison's point was that Clinton's treatment looked something like what had for generations been a defining experience of African-Americans, particularly African-American men - a kind of hunting, absent any protection, with no line of dignity or threshold of humiliation that can't be run over roughshod, even to the point of the violation or desecration of the frail dignity of the body. This is unholy and sacred territory so it is best for me to quote Morrison at length ...

African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”

For a large segment of the population who are not African-Americans or members of other minorities, the elusive story left visible tracks: from target sighted to attack, to criminalization, to lynching, and now, in some quarters, to crucifixion. The always and already guilty “perp” is being hunted down not by a prosecutor’s obsessive application of law but by a different kind of pursuer, one who makes new laws out of the shards of those he breaks.

This can all seem rather distant now since Clinton has spent the better part of a generation since 1998 as the toast of the world, the Davos set and the popular culture, a self-defined international celebrity powerhouse, a millionaire so many times over. But it was very real at the time. Remember that Jesse Helms, the Republican senator from North Carolina, a degenerate racist of the old school, once joked/not-joked that President Clinton shouldn't come to his state or he might be shot. Clinton was the 'first black president' because he was treated with an acidic disrespect and humiliation that many African-Americans believed a black president would endure.

Before going any further, it is worth noting for the record that if Clinton was hunted for mainly illegitimate reasons, if we are to compare him to President Obama, we must say that Clinton gave his pursuers some decent material to work with. Barack Obama is everything that Bill Clinton is not - in good ways and bad. In key respects, the two men could not be more different. Obama is squeaky clean. If there is an impulsive side to his personality, he has driven it deep inside the recesses of his psyche. And yet the villification, delegitimization, denigration of the two men has a distinct similarity which is hard to ignore if you followed each presidency closely as they happened. If you were watching the impeachment spectacle, "You Lie!" was altogether familiar.

I don't have any grand theory to advance on this question. My main aim is to note the elements of similarity. A lot of what we see with Obama is tied to his race. After all, he is the first black President. It is mind-boggling to see that it is considered a point of serious discussion that President Obama made race relations in this country worse. But some of this is about the revanchism of the American right, something which has been with us in something like its modern form for almost a century and was coming into its current shape in the Clinton years. The social, cultural, political antagonism of the Clinton years is fundamentally similar to that of the Obama years. The players are different, but the factions they bring into conflict are fundamentally the same, only now with the conflict and the alignment in a more purified, clarified form.

In her short essay, Morrison referred to Clinton as "blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime." Such an irony that she would be very much alive only 10 years later when Barack Obama was elected President. Thankfully she remains so today. But her essay merits another look and another after that because it is far better and more prescient than the facile gloss that has grown over it over the years. Barack Obama is our first black president. But both men faced the same American right - the hard right, which has become more dominant, entrenched and controlling of what was once American's center-right party. Those toxic forces, that malignant resistance made Bill Clinton in some momentary sense or degree black because the nature of his political enemies mattered more than the color of his skin.