He loved things we loved, the way we loved them. He jumped into music and wordplay and food with a passion you could see on your TV screen. First time, on Arsenio, we saw something we recognized. Arsenio was our public/private space, and we watched every night. When Clinton showed up there, he came into our collective living room. When he sat with Arsenio, he was comfortable. When he picked up the sax, we heard that he didn't have the chops, but we also heard that he felt the music deep down. That's what we talked about the next day.
Clinton was someone we could have taken home. He would have known how to respect our mothers, compliment their food, and eat it with the proper appreciation. (We knew how much he loved his own mother; we knew what they had been through.) He would have understood the jokes and thrown in a few of his own, laughing out loud with the best of them.
On television, we watched as he listened to opera diva Kathleen Battle with moist eyes, drinking in her dark beauty and resonant voice, and we liked him for that. We saw him grooving to Aretha, sitting on the edge of his seat, nodding and laughing at the right places (unlike the stiff-backed, stiff-smiling politicians sitting around him), hugging her later with a joy that, if it wasn't real, was so close it didn't matter. You can't learn this stuff from a consultant; the man got this in his bones.
He knew the words to our songs, be they blues, jazz, or church. He clapped on the downbeat. We got his addiction to meat-and-potatoes fast food. In a way, we even got Monica. When white women were saying Hillary should leave him, black women were calling black radio stations to say they understood why she could not. Bill Clinton was under siege--a familiar place for us. He forgot what black politicians forget at their peril: Your enemies are watching, and they will use whatever they can. Black mothers warn their children about this: Never give them an excuse to bring you down. This sealed Clinton's image with African-Americans. We know what it is to have powerful enemies who do not want you to move or breathe, much less stand up and accomplish something. His ability to stand back up, over and over again, won our respect.
I'm not saying what he did was right. But we all knew he wasn't the only man in Washington getting too close to the interns. Monicagate was not really about sex; it was about politics. Hillary did what many black women would do--what Effi Barry did, what I would do: She moved into the protective-wife stance. You deal with the threat first and cry later, on your own time. The very things white conservatives hated about Hillary--her equality with her husband, her willingness to speak--made the Clintons' relationship look more like a traditional black marriage than a modern white one.
Clinton was a rascal, an intelligent, charismatic bad boy who could thumb his nose at the authorities and get away with it. Even his enemies' epithet, Slick Willie, had an ethnic sound. "Bill Clinton is a brother," comic D.L. Hughley riffed. "Anyone who can smoke reefer and get head in the White House and get away with it is a brother!" The joke was played regularly on black radio stations during the impeachment drama because it captured the essential feeling of a lot of African-Americans--that we'd never seen a president like this one. It was a measure of support for someone going through what seemed to be an unjustly hard time.
So when Clinton went to a conference of black ministers to admit his sins, they forgave him. We forgive our own, maybe too much. We know he did not do right by traditional black leaders, did not push through any new civil-rights advances. But we also know what he was up against--that when someone is trying to kill you, survival is victory. His enemies were our enemies, and it felt like he was one of a few powerful people holding back those who wanted to take us back to the bad times. Now those enemies are moving into the big white house. We miss him already.
Sheri Parks is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park and co-host of Media Matters on WJHU (88.1 FM).
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