By L.N. Smithee
Note: Ten years ago today I published the essay below on Free Republic.com in response to reading a commentary on the pending impeachment of then-President Clinton written by African-American novelist Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. In it, she refers to Clinton as "our first black President."
It has since vanished from FR servers, but I recently recovered it, and decided to repost it in light of the fact that Barack Obama -- along with those who are determined to make sure he is elected President -- is bludgeoning people with no discernible racial animus with the charge of racism simply because they challenge his truthfulness and his judgment. The Morrison piece -- published in the October 5, 1998 edition of The New Yorker magazine -- is a preview of what we can expect if President Obama gets himself into a scandal.
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 Toni Morrison quotes that have so enraged clear-thinking people across America were just a symptom of the greater disease among the glitterati that have been expressing mere disappointment at the sins of President Clinton, but revulsion at truth-telling of Kenneth Starr.
Morrison's article in which she stated her patently ridiculous opinion that Bill Clinton, "white skin notwithstanding ... is our first black President" was only part of a larger collection of essays apparently solicited by the New Yorker magazine. In its "Talk Of The Town" feature immediately after the table of contents, short editorials were presented that were billed as being from "the experts on human folly." Who were these "experts"? Psychotherapists? Sociologists? No, mostly writers of fiction and the superstars of the coffee-and-a-good-book crowd: Nobel Prize-Winning Morrison ("Paradise", "Beloved"), Pulitzer-winning Jane Smiley ("Moo", "A Thousand Acres"), Janet Malcolm ("The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath… "), Lorrie Moore ("Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?"), Louis Begley ("About Schmidt"),and Ethan Canin ("For Kings and Planets").
When the scales fell from my eyes in my early adulthood, and I came to the realization that conservatives were not all racists, murderous profiteers and religious fanatics (not to say that conservatives like that don't exist), I began to see the ways their polar opposites simply do not acknowledge the existence of problems with their philosophies. The October 5, 1998 issue of the New Yorker is Liberal Tunnel Vision 101.
I would like nothing better than to lambaste them all, but because time and space is limited, and Morrison's view is particular offensive to me as a black man, I will only comment on her part of the New Yorker's crime against logic.
The reason Morrison so adeptly denies facts about the investigations of the President is because she carefully made certain she would not have to face them. She begins her piece by saying that she embarked on this past summer as one in which she would "do selective radio listening, read no newspapers or news magazines, and leave my television screen mercifully blank…It was a lovely summer and I was pleased with the decision to recuse myself from what had become since January The Only Story Worth Telling…"
(At reading this, I thought to myself, "She didn't even turn on her old pal Oprah?")
"I was eager for information," she insisted, "yet suspicious of the package in which that information would be wrapped," referring to the "ratings-driven, money-based" visual and print media. How to survive summer without dying of information starvation? "I decided to get my news the old-fashioned way: conversation, public eavesdropping, and word of mouth."
The great thing about getting your information that way is you get to choose friendly mouths to get the spin you want. Get a load of the things she said she didn't want to hear from the sources she distrusted: "I [was] fearing at any minute I might have to witness ex-Presidential friends selling that friendship for the higher salaries of broadcast journalism; anticipating the nausea that might rise when quaking Democrats took firm positions on or over the fence in case the polls changed." It doesn't seem to matter to her whether those dreaded people were truthful-just that they not switch sides. She continues: "I imagined feral Republicans, smelling blood and a shot at the totalitarian power they believe is rightfully theirs; self-congratulatory pundits sifting through 'history' for nuggets of dubious relevancy."
Present in Morrison's view of those who are "judging" Clinton is the standard liberal assumption that those casting the stones are not only not without sin, but habitual practitioners of whatever they condemn. "Women leaving hotels following trysts with their extramarital lovers tell pollsters they abominate Mr. Clinton's behavior. Relaxed men fresh from massage parlors frown earnestly into the camera at the mere thought of such malfeasance." Morrison doesn't even modify those statements with anything as half-heartedly fair as "I'll bet."
She then displays her denial of the importance of the President not committing felonies while being the Chief Executive. "At another point, the story seemed to be about high and impeachable crimes that we have had some experience with: the suborning of federal agencies; the exchange of billion-dollar contracts for proof of indiscretion; the extermination of infants in illegal wars mounted and waged for money and power. Until something like those abuses surfaces (sic), the story will have to make do with thinner stuff: alleged perjury and "Lady, your husband is cheating on us."
Where to begin a refutation of that nonsense?
First of all, which President had the "experience" of being threatened with impeachment for any of the above "high and impeachable crimes that we have had some experience with?" Secondly, at what point was Starr's investigation of Clinton's misdeeds about any of those things? Thirdly, if Morrison had been paying any kind of attention to the hearings regarding the campaign funding scandals, she would have recognized that there is reason to believe that as we speak there is subornation of Janet Reno's Justice Department-just ask Louis Freeh and Charles LaBella. But Starr can't get his hands on this scandal, and neither can any other independent counsel, thanks to Reno's curious discounting of her trusted investigators' judgment.
As for "alleged perjury," with Morrison presumably using the sleazy lawyer argument that lies told under oath are not perjury unless it is material to the case in which a witness is under oath, there is no credible reason for anyone with half a brain to argue that the lies told about Monica Lewinsky were peripheral to the Paula Jones suit. If Clinton truthfully stated that he and Monica engaged in the same sexual act in the workplace that Jones says she was crudely given the opportunity to perform years ago, that fact would not go unnoticed by the jury. But more importantly, the slender examples that Jones gave of "reprisals" for not becoming one of the then-Governor's harem (most memorably the notion that she was singled out not to receive flowers on Secretaries' Day) would have picked up considerable weight upon the truthful revelation that Lewinsky's silence was thought to be insured by her promotion to a Pentagon assistant position for which she was not eminently qualified.
On top of all of that, don't forget this very important point-the Lewinsky affair (as well as the Willey overtures) took place while Clinton was awaiting word on whether or not the suit was going to begin during his term in office or not. So rather than being about something that happened long ago, Jones' legal action was about piggish and prosecutable activities that were still Clinton's modus operandi, and -- for all we know -- might still be going on right now. After all, we have already been burned once, thinking that after the Flowers revelation and confession Clinton's alleycatting days were all in his past.
In order to save his own political or financial hide (or both), the chief law enforcer of the country conspired to deny a private citizen her day in court. And he lied to everyone in the country in order to do so. And he lied under oath before a grand jury, an action that his friend and former business partner Susan McDougal chose a contempt-of-court sentence over. And he continues to shade the truth in every public or private statement. But in her ignoring the fact of impeachable offenses committed by the President, she does not even mention the fact that the reason these questions were even asked was the probability that he has a pattern of abusing his privileges as a powerful boss of women -- actions usually thought to be purely the domain of rich male chauvinist white men.
Which brings us to Morrison's tortured comparisons of the President's legal troubles to that of the slavery victims and stereotypical ghetto losers that she celebrates.
Clinton, says she, is "[B]lacker than any actual person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime." I guess that is a slap at Republican Colin Powell, who is assured of widespread initial support for a Presidential run if he chooses. Morrison continues, "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." But this painting Clinton in tones deeper than his own pale-to-pinkish red has less to do with his background and choice of diet as it does his carnal activities. She goes on: "[W]hen virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, [ i.e., Lani Guinier, Mike Espy, Joycelyn Elders, and of course, Ron Brown] … the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution … 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 it 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.' "
Morrison is on a roll and keeps going. "[T]he elusive story left visible tracks: from target sighted to attack, to criminalization, to lynching, and now, in some quarters, crucifixion."
The fact that the Constitution does not allow for acknowledged felonious Presidents to escape impeachment inquiries is lost on Morrison. Instead, she says the real story is what the Office of Independent Counsel -- if not Starr himself -- represents. "Such concentrated power may be reminiscent of a solitary Torquemada on a holy mission of lethal inquisition. It may even suggest a fatwa. But neither applies. This is Slaughtergate. A sustained, bloody, arrogant coup d'etat. The Presidency is being stolen from us. And the people know it."
Morrison forgets that the only blood shed so far that can be connected to the inquiries into Clinton's behavior is that of Vincent Foster, his old ally from the Little Rock days and personal friend and partner of Hillary's. If Starr is to be believed by liberals when he agrees with the President, Foster chose the instrument of his own destruction when he took his own life. And remember that the Independent Counsel Statute was renewed with Clinton's lawmaking pen over the objections of a GOP minority during his first term. Clinton also chose the instrument of his destruction. He was not "crucified"-- far from it. He got a running start, took a Jordanesque leap, and climbed up the cross.
And whose "arrogance" is responsible for this sorry situation? Starr's? Gingrich's? It is to laugh. The Presidency has not been "stolen"-- if it eventually is lost by Clinton, it is because he threw it away. The anger at Starr is incredibly misplaced. If Clinton represents everything a good President is, his first responsibility to those who love him is not to screw it up. If that meant being without fellatio for eight years, wouldn't that have been a small price to pay for his country's progress? Even the most cynical of Clinton critics can't think that he wanted to be leader of the free world just for the groupies. But revelations about his getting sex not only after hours but during hours with women he would discard like whores make him seem like someone who is capable of being that elephantine a cretin.
Richard Nixon seemed to actually believe that a President was above the law. Hillary Rodham, among others, made sure that was a fatal mistake on his part, but some two decades later, her own husband decided that a President is only subject to the law if he is caught -- and not simply caught, but caught red-handed.
Now, hopefully, he will discover the same lesson he should have learned long ago, and the bar set in 1974 will be raised rather than lowered for future Presidents.
I would like to close with this message to Toni Morrison:
If you think that Clinton is all but black, I say, Toni, thanks for nothing. If this reflects your attitude about the inabilities of our people, you are still on the plantation, dearie. You still think we can't rise above our backgrounds (presuming, as the likes of you do, that we are all born poor and abused and have a defeatist attitude). You don't think of your own people as having future potential, you think of us as having unremovable shackles perpetually preventing us from being seen as anything but homo sapiens' also-rans. You can't think in terms of equality that is earned -- only that which is granted to the lowly by the high and mighty at the threat of violent revolution. You worship Clinton-types because they kowtow to curry your favor and get your vote, not because they view you as equals. You hate blacks like Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas and Alan Keyes because they want to compete before the playing field is "leveled" the way that many Asian and European peoples who have ventured to America have; your type wants to be fed at the breast of white America, never satisfied that the time for weaning has arrived, yet wailing that it will never come.
In short, despite your fame, talent, wealth, and accomplishments, you are not an example of the solution. You are part of the problem.
I am sorry about the length of this. Congratulations if you made it to the end. I just had to get this out of my system.
In the posts in the original Free Republic thread, there were an interesting exchange of comments. One particular post remained in my memory. In italics below is the original comment, and my reply follows:
Perhaps you could express an opinion on a theory I have come to after much thought about the subject. I have come to believe that much of the attitude of liberal black Americans stems from the way that slavery was ended in this country. It's almost as if they don't feel like they've earned it because it was given to them, not taken by them.
I really don't know how to answer that because I was never given a history lesson -- in school or out -- about the ways in which America screwed black people. I don't remember the first time I learned of slavery (in retrospect, I do remember, but it's beside the point -- LNS), but I never viewed the institution of it as some sort of commentary on my worth as an individual. I think perhaps some of the reason I have been insulated from blind outrage is the fact that in my Biblical education, the chosen people were also, on and off for long periods of time, enslaved. I really don't know, and wish I could explain it to you.
John Hope Franklin wants us all to believe that we can talk racism to death. Rubbish. Racism exists in America, and always will. If we were all overnight changed into the same skin color, the focus would move from skin color to hair color, or eye color, or nose size, or something else. It is human nature, and humans will never be able to eradicate it any more than the 13th Amendment ended slavery in other countries besides the USA.
One thing I will agree with is that victory and accomplishment is sweeter if you earn it than if it is handed to you. As I alluded in the post, Asian and Europeans in the past have suffered indignities and discrimination. The Asians and Europeans may not have been enslaved, and the Jews could always conceal their lineage by changing their names, true -- but at some [time] between the Lincoln Administration and today, there must have been a point at which the rising black American was at the same level as the [other immigrants'] peoples whose descendants today lead industry giants and multinational corporations without the benefit of virtual partnership (or sponsorship) of the government.
When was this moment? God only knows. But I know this, also: In 1869, six years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when the Trans-Continental Railroad's golden spike historically connected the east and west American coasts in Promontory Point, coming from the eastern side of the tracks (according to accounts in the textbooks I was given) were mostly black laborers. Coming from the western end were mostly Chinese laborers, who were still persecuted and harassed and murdered for undercutting American-born workers wages. Fast forward to today: while some black activists fume about their ancestors never getting their forty acres and a mule, other blacks are bemoaning race-based preferences disappearing at U. of California campuses. Chinese activists are upset about the UC campus situation, too -- because of lower standards for other minorities, excelling Chinese applicants were rejected a UC education. Morrison and her crowd should be asking "What did the Chinese immigrants do differently that might work for blacks?
If anyone is tempted to use some sort of "Bell Curve" theory to apply to this set of facts, do us both a favor and save it. Thinking that genetics doom individuals to lower classes does nothing but foster racism and cause the defeatism that minorities need to overcome.