Killer Bill: Ex-president fights dirty on his wife's behalf

The dominant force in US politics will play a critical role in deciding who becomes the 44th President. Leonard Doyle reports from South Carolina

Sunday 27 January 2008 01:00 GMT
Former President Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife, Hillary
Former President Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife, Hillary

Sprinting up yet another stage, fists bunched like a boxer's, Barack Obama seems unbeatable. The Muhammad Ali of presidential candidates, he delivers a knockout message of hope and inspiration, cutting across race, class and party lines.

The enthusiasm is infectious. Even here in the Old South, where Republicans are overwhelmingly white and blacks are Democratic, Mr Obama's rallies attract a rainbow coalition of young black and white voters.

It was the same all the way up to Friday night, as Democratic voters pondered their choice for yesterday's primary, the result of which came too late for this paper. And it had Bill Clinton pacing around the presidential suite of a Columbia hotel, anxiously watching as South Carolina's black voters were lured away from his wife to the insurgent, charismatic black candidate. Despite his reputation as America's most revered former president, Bill has the killer instinct of a good ole Southern pol, and his moment to act had arrived.

Earlier in the race Mr Clinton had tried, not always successfully, to avoid outshining Hillary, the candidate. But in South Carolina he took centre stage. Mrs Clinton spent much of her time elsewhere focusing on the contests to come. Her husband was left behind to take the shine off Obama's campaign, and he did so to such effect that he could play a central role in the rest of the election battle.

Resorting to the sort of "dog whistle" politics that Republicans have often used to smear black opponents, without directly going on the attack, he accused the Obama camp last week of a "hit job" and of playing the race card to win in South Carolina. The edge he revealed in unsheathing his rhetorical dagger horrified the chattering classes so enamoured of Mr Obama's Kumbayah gospel. But deep in their bones, that is what Democrats love about the Clintons. After eight disastrous years of George Bush and two consecutive defeats of well-meaning candidates who just whinged about the opposition's tactics, they recognise in the couple a capacity to hold up under fire and deliver a killer blow.

It has been clear for weeks that blacks would be turning out in droves for Mr Obama, just like the year they voted for Jesse Jackson. Suddenly it was time for Mr Clinton to dip into the Republican playbook of dirty politics to turbo-charge his wife's race for the nomination. At 61, Bill Clinton may not be running for President, but his eyes are firmly fixed on the White House.

On Monday evening Hillary Clinton set the tone at a televised debate in Myrtle Beach. In a few sharp exchanges she telegraphed to viewers that Mr Obama was just another sleazy black politician in a sharp suit. For all his uplifting rhetoric, she said, he winked at legislation to allow sex shops near schools, consorted with a slum landlord, didn't oppose the war in Iraq when it really mattered and, in the greatest heresy for Democrats, admired Ronald Reagan. It was a breathtaking assault.

It also left a sour taste in the mouths of many South Carolinians. But at the crack of dawn the next day, Hillary quit the state, heading first for Washington DC before going on to campaign and hold fundraisers in some of the big population centres that will vote on 5 February – "Super Tuesday", when 22 states hold simultaneous primary elections. Had she done the same thing in Iowa, when the polls showed Senator Obama the likely winner, it might have been fatal to her campaign. Somehow, however, the predominantly black Democratic voters of South Carolina mattered less in the grand scheme of things.

The Clintons have encouraged the national media to focus on the black turnout, which is expected to be quite large. Defeat here only underlines the Clinton message to white voters that this is a racial fight. The hope is that this will drive white Democrats in the states that matter into the arms of Mrs Clinton. And by the end of the week it was clear that the strategy was working, as they knew it would in racially divided South Carolina. Opinion polls indicated Mr Obama was getting an astoundingly low 10 per cent backing from whites, after winning so handsomely in lily-white Iowa. Mr Obama's support among whites had fallen by half since the last time the poll was conducted, with most of the support going to the local boy, John Edwards. This was precisely what the Clintons hoped for.

Mr Obama had been eager to keep race out of the election, and previously the Clintons were laughed at whenever they tried to introduce it.

The politics of South Carolina is all about race. Bill held breakfast prayer meetings with black pastors from around the state in the Hilton Hotel to reassure them that he remained their friend. When Hillary came back to South Carolina, one of her first events on Friday was a prayer-led pep rally at a black college.

The trick, says Dick Morris, the former Clinton strategist, was to appear to seek the black vote, and lose it, while benefiting from a white backlash across the country, "all without any fingerprints showing". The now-sworn enemy of the Clintons added: "The more President Clinton begs black voters to back his wife, and the more they spurn her, the more the election becomes about race – and Obama ultimately loses."

The strategy could be seen unfolding at 9am on Tuesday as Bill Clinton's secret service escort brought him to the Lizard's Thicket diner. Tipped off by email, the media were there, but not many customers. Caitlin Schmidt approached the former president and ticked him off for the nasty turn the campaign had taken the night before in the Myrtle Beach debate. "I couldn't agree more," said Mr Clinton, his eye momentarily attracted by a plate of coronary-inducing biscuits and gravy being served to a customer. "Umm, those biscuits look good," he said, and then fixed his eyes on Ms Schmidt. "It's only the media who bring these things up," he claimed. "In hundreds of town hall meetings, people only ask me about the policy issues they care about – but I understand it, these guys in the media need a new story every day."

Part of the problem the mainstream media is encountering is boredom with tiny South Carolina. Compared to the pretty scenes of New Hampshire in the snow, and coming a week after the virtually all-white Republican primary, it was a quiet time here for the TV crews. The opinions of black voters did not quite fill the media vacuum.

But Bill soon would, with a craftily staged outburst at a CNN journalist. Asked by a reporter why the poison of race was being allowed to enter the campaign he said: "Shame on you!" It was the Obama campaign, he said, which had put out a "hit job" on him, and that they were the first to play the "race card". What he was referring to was a long-forgotten press release issued and subsequently retracted by the Obama camp many months ago, in which they mocked the heavy support Hillary Clinton was getting from Asians.

When Hillary was asked about the race-baiting, she seemed apologetic, and said Bill had told her he may have overdone things. The greybeards of the Democratic Party certainly think so. They are deeply worried that the unprecedented enthusiasm which the Obama candidacy is generating among black and young voters will be squandered by the cynical turn of events.

Robert Reich, an old friend of both Clintons, complained about the toxic contamination of the election with race. Mr Clinton's "ill-tempered and ill-founded attacks on Barack Obama are doing no credit to the former president, his legacy or his wife's campaign", he said.

The complaints kept flowing in all week, with former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle calling his conduct "not presidential" and another Democratic ex-senator, Bill Bradley, describing him as a "junkyard dog".

Well-meaning Democrats wonder why Mr Obama fails to engage in battle with the Clintons. But he does not appear to have the stomach for it, and that is discouraging Democrats who just want a candidate who will beat the Republicans.

Yesterday Mr Clinton was bound for Independence, Missouri, hoping to restore some of the gloss to his tarnished reputation. But he knows that it will be his words, not Hillary's or Obama's, that will dominate the airwaves.

War of words...

"Give me a break! This whole thing is the biggest fairytale I've ever seen"

Bill Clinton on Obama's claim to have opposed the Iraq war throughout, 7 January

"He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts. This has become a habit"

Barack Obama on Bill Clinton, 20 January

"She [Hillary] did not play the race card, but they did"

Bill Clinton on Obama's campaign, 23 January

"I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes"

Barack Obama on CNN debate, 21 January

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