Black support unwavering for the `sinner' Clinton

 

Maxine Waters is a black US congresswoman and a fairly rare breed in American politics. She is about as close to fearless as one is likely to find in any country's political sphere.

Ms Waters routinely wins 80 per cent of the vote in her district in Los Angeles every time she is re-elected, which has happened regularly for many years now. When riots occurred after the police beating of Rodney King several years ago, and the city was engulfed by flames and gunfire, the well-coiffed Ms Waters jumped into her car and drove into the smoky thick of it, telling bandana-clad young black gang members toting semi-automatic machine guns: "Don't do it. Don't give the cops a reason to kill you. Go home."

Many of them, because it was Maxine, telling them what was what, went home.

Now Ms Waters has got another agenda and it is almost as formidable as stopping a looter; to save the presidency of Bill Clinton and defeat the campaign of Kenneth Starr. It is a task she has embraced with all the passion and drive she has brought to a political career that began on the streets of Watts 25 years ago.

Ms Waters is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and is head of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has arguably been the most stalwart base for Mr Clinton during the entire Lewinsky crisis. As other Democrats backed away from Mr Clinton, the caucus spoke out on his behalf.

When the Democrats' minority leader in the House, Mr Richard Gephardt, called Mr Clinton's behavior "reprehensible", Ms Waters called on him to tone down his remarks. When the House voted 363 to 63 in favour of releasing Mr Starr's report to the public, it was the caucus that provided more than half the opposing votes.

In fighting against Mr Starr, Ms Waters says she is focusing on issues of fairness and due process, which she feels are being denied the President.

Last week, Mr Clinton awarded President Nelson Mandela of South Africa the Congressional Medal of Honour. The ceremony turned into a near revival meeting when the daughter of Martin Luther King Jnr led a prayer-like call, with corresponding cries of "Amen!", for prosecutors and Republicans to " . . . leave our President alone."

Back in the black communities of urban America, support for Mr Clinton is intense. Black Americans have been fiercely protective of Mr Clinton, giving him a job approval rating of 90 per cent in most polls, while the broader electorate supports him at about 60 per cent.

Before an audience of 5,000 last week at the annual convention of the black caucus, Mr Clinton thanked them "for standing up for me and understanding the true meaning of repentance and atonement".

Why? Why is a community known for its high attendance at Sunday morning church services so devoted to a man whom history may record as the most blatant sinner to occupy the highest office in the land?

"Actor Ossie Davis said it best 27 years ago at the Congressional Black Caucus's first fund-raiser: `It's not the man, it's the plan'," Representative Charles Rangel told Newsday. The feeling is that Mr Clinton has been the strongest President in his support of issues concerning black Americans.

He has pushed for affirmative action and more hiring for minorities, he has supported increases in the minimum wage for low-paid workers, and he has appointed unprecedented numbers of blacks to his cabinet and to important federal jobs and judgeships.

Perhaps there is no better example of Mr Clinton's dedication to those issues than his trip to Africa last March. Two of the three members of his administration who travelled with him, as well as 16 members of Congress who joined the trip, were black.

Representative Donald Payne, a Democrat from a ghetto district in Newark, New Jersey, who was on the 12-day trip, told the New York Times: "I can hardly believe this is happening. I'm pinching myself. I've been in the wilderness for 20 years, me and a few others, trying and failing to get the United States interested in Africa."

With an entourage of some 800 people, including business leaders, labour leaders and church leaders, Mr Clinton pressed hard for American investment in Africa. He also provided needed support to those African leaders trying to privatise their economies.

But even the support for all those policies does not explain the visceral support among blacks. Some say it is the community's tradition of forgiveness and spiritual redemption that is driving their dedication to Mr Clinton.

That devotion is surmounting even the highest levels of commerce and competition; for example, a televised interview with Monica Lewinsky is now about the hottest ticket in town in journalism and entertainment circles. Oprah Winfrey, the Queen of Talk Television, was offered an interview. But she rejected Ms Lewinsky when the young woman's representatives began to negotiate for the retention of certain broadcast rights. Ms Winfrey, who is not a journalist but was offended by the tone of the bargaining, said simply, "I don't pay for interviews."

Perhaps the reason for such loyalty is best summed up by the Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison. In an impassioned defence in last week's New Yorker, Ms Morrison wrote: "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, Mr 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."

The acrid message from Mr Clinton's opponents, according to Ms Morrison, was that no matter how high you go, no matter how hard you work and how smart you are, you will be put in your place if you don't do what we say.

At this stage, Mr Clinton will need all the help he can get.