Out of America: Drop-out from backstreets cracks whip over Clinton

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The Independent Online
BALTIMORE - Kweise Mfume ought to be Bill Clinton's sort of person. Self-discipline, the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, are the core of the 'New Democrat' philosophy that won him the presidency. They are also the trademark of Mfume's miraculous career. If ever there was a member of the impoverished black underclass of America's inner cities, it was he: born here 44 years ago in the roughest part of town, a school drop-out who fathered five children by different women within five years, who drifted from one menial job to another.

Somehow, the man once called Frizzell Gray caught hold of an unravelling life. He took an African name, put himself through college and won a seat on Baltimore City Council. In 1986 he became a congressman; now he heads the influential black caucus on Capitol Hill. Kweise Mfume has clout. Unfortunately he and Clinton are not getting on.

There could be no clearer measure of this President's difficulties than his fraught relations with congressional blacks. It was not supposed to be like that. Bill Clinton made a reputation as a racially enlightened governor in a backwoods Southern state. In Washington he appointed four blacks among his 18 cabinet members. But since then almost everything has gone wrong, culminating in his withdrawal of the black law professor Lani Guinier as his nominee to head the Justice Department's sensitive civil rights division. Mfume and the caucus were so angered by the perceived sell-out to Senate moderates that they pulled out of a peace-making session with Clinton. Dorothy Gilliam, Washington Post columnist and unofficial mouthpiece of the capital's black establishment, wrote that 'if Bill Clinton had been president during the Civil War, blacks would still be in slavery . . . the President's watchword appears to be cowardice, not grace, under pressure.'

Naturally, the wise and worldly are making light of the mutiny. Tempers will cool, they say, and the caucus is too divided to make its threats stick. Moreover, has not Clinton got away with this sort of thing before, in 1992 when his criticism of the black rap singer Sister Souljah was taken as treachery by Jesse Jackson, but delighted white suburbanites whose votes he desperately needed? And did not blacks vote overwhelmingly for Clinton in November? So, they predict, it will be with the Guinier affair, a similar obligatory sop to the silent majority. Congressional blacks will realise they have no choice but to rally around a Democratic President. Perhaps - but this time not without causing trouble.

April brought the first warning shot, when the caucus joined forces with Republicans to scupper a plan to give the President greater power to veto public spending items. A fortnight ago, many suspect that abstentions by black voters disillusioned over the abandonment of Ms Guinier contributed to the landslide defeat of a Democrat, Bob Krueger, in the Texas Senate race. And the caucus has other grievances - from broken Clinton promises over Haiti to the surrender of an economic stimulus package that would have channelled jobs and funds to the inner cities like Baltimore.

But nothing speaks louder than numbers. Last year's election increased the caucus from 25 to 39, and turned its chairmanship into a prize rich enough to produce the first ever contested election, which Mfume won. It was a black caucus turn-out that gave Clinton his crucial victory in the House vote on his economic package, by the threadbare margin of 219 to 213. If Mfume warns that his group will vote against any compromise that involves deeper cuts in welfare and health care, the White House must listen. Not bad for the backstreet boy who 14 years ago, in his own words, 'had one foot on a banana peel and the other foot halfway in hell'. Today, that description could equally apply to the state of the presidency.