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The TNR Q&A: James Clyburn

The most powerful African American in Congress, whom Bill Clinton calls a "former friend," describes a fractured Democratic Party

During the Democratic primary season, Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina was the man to talk to about identity politics. As the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns hurled suggestive and sometimes ugly statements at each other, Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, spoke personally with the candidates and appeared on television numerous times to insist that cooler heads prevail, lest the Democrats lose their chance to take the White House. Now, with the primary season officially (almost) over, Clyburn discusses the improbability of Barack Obama’s candidacy, the state of his friendship with Bill Clinton, and the damage the primaries did to the Democratic Party.


You have described dreaming of this moment--a black man receiving a presidential nomination--while sitting in a South Carolina jail cell after being arrested during a civil rights demonstration. How do you feel now that it’s happening?   

I’ve always expected this day to come; I just never expected to live to see it, just as I didn’t get to Congress in the lifetimes of my mother and father. But all of a sudden [a black nominee] is here, it is upon me, and hopefully I’ll continue to be around and live to see a black president. [chuckles]  


During the primary, you suggested that Bill and Hillary’s relationship with the black Democratic base had been irreparably damaged. Do you still believe that?

I simply said that I thought that things were being said and done that could very well make the nomination of our party not worth having. I was around when the Willy Horton ads literally annihilated our candidate for president. That [sort of attack] didn’t start out with Republicans; that started out in the Democratic primaries. Right now, we see the McCain campaign doing things that seem to be taken out of the Democratic primary. We see a tightening in this race. And we have nobody and nothing to blame except things that happened in the primary.

Bill Clinton referred to you on ABC News recently as a “former friend.” Do you consider your friendship over?

I certainly don’t feel that way. I think Bill Clinton was an excellent president and is an outstanding Democrat. I suspect that when you have differences, as many of us have had, it’s sometimes tough. When I ran for Congress, I ran against four other people. It was a tough campaign. Some people reacted in certain ways, but we got over it in later years. I understand these things.


You are speaking at the convention on the same night as Bill Clinton. What does he need to say in his speech--and what does the Clinton camp need to do in the coming months--to re-ingratiate himself with the black community?

I’m not going to tell anyone what to say in their speeches. ... I would hope that everybody talks on terms that help unify this party.


You’ve discussed the difficulties that now face Obama’s candidacy, some of them made apparent during the primaries. What does the Democratic Party need to do now to combat them?

We’ll have to run a campaign based on what folks in this country seem to want to see happen. People want to see us solve the energy crisis as it exists, the housing crisis as it exists, the health care crisis as it exists. They want to see us create a better economy and a way of life for them and their children. Whether we can do that will determine if we can be in the mainstream, or remain on the margins.

Should Obama succeed in this and become president, what impact do you think that would have on how Americans, particularly younger generations, view our history of racial divisions?

I think if Barack Obama becomes president it will have the most positive impact of any single event in my lifetime--on young African-American males especially. I used to teach school. I used to teach students that if you study hard and play by the rules, you can be anything. At the time I was saying it, I didn’t really believe it. Young African-American males are filling up jails, dropping out of schools. Those things I think will be taken care of with this election.


Seyward Darby is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.

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By Seyward Darby