Sep
01
1992

Clinton's Willie Horton?

Bill Clinton's remarks about rapper Sister Souljah were part of a clear, if some what peculiar, political strategy: identify those voting blocs most likely to support you, and alienate them. This strategy was outlined in a David

Broder/Thomas Edsall Washington Post piece (6/12/92) just before the Rainbow Coalition conference: “Some top advisers to Clinton argue that...he must become involved in highly publicized confrontations with one or more Democratic constituencies.” According to the Post, key aides wanted Clinton to “confront [Jackson] and his followers."

Regardless of what one thinks of Sister Souljah, Clinton's focus on her was clearly one of those deliberately staged provocations, and Clinton's spin doctors were out in force making sure that reporters did not miss the significance of Clinton “standing up” to Jackson. But as Michael Tomasky, who covered the Rainbow Conference, accurately predicted (Village Voice, 6/23/92):“Guess which one, Clinton or Jackson, will be called, as the convention approaches, ‘divisive'?"

Pundits nearly unanimously praised Clinton’s “courage” in taking on the rap singer. (Criticizing Murphy Brown is silly, criticizing Sister Souljah is bold.) The refusal to recognize what was going on was epitomized by a New York Times editorial (6/17/92) headlined “Sister Souljah Is No Willie Horton”-the distinction being that “these were hateful remarks.” It was as if Bush's exploitation of the Horton case was objectionable because it unfairly made the rapist seem like a bad guy.

In fact, the Horton and Souljah gambits were parallel-a potitician attempted to win white votes by focusing attention on an irrelevant issue that resonated with white fears of black violence. As the Clinton handlers quoted

above explained, the “confrontation” wasn't with Souljah or Jackson, but with a “constituency”-i.e., blacks. Rather than critical coverage of this calculated race-baiting, the press offered praise: “Clinton Deftly Navigates Shoals of

Racial issues," a New York Times news report was headlined (6/17/92).

Jackson, on the other hand, was widely denounced as an “egotistical party wrecker" (Newsweek, 6/29/92) who will “not sleep well if another Democrat” wins the presidency (Time, 6/29/92). Some caricatures of Jackson were remarkably crude and vicious-a cartoon in the Oregonian (reprinted In Newsweek, 6/29/92) portrayed Jackson as a rapper demanding that Clinton “grovel like Mike in ‘88"; the New York Post (6/24/92) showed a snarling Jackson holding a gun to Clinton's head, threatening to “waste him."