Clinton's false Harlem symbolism rings true

If former President Clinton actually sets up shop on Harlem's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, it will be a transparent display of political huckstering from the former huckster-in-chief himself. It will also be a meaningful act that white Americans, left, right, and center, should applaud.

Responding to the uproar about the earlier decision to lease space near Carnegie Hall for about $800,000 a year, the Clintons pulled out a masterful counterstroke of political gamesmanship.

It would be very easy to look at the shift some 70 blocks north and an economic world apart and spy nothing but the legendary spin machine still in action. Even Clinton loyalists must cringe when the former president assures reporters that in his early 20s, "I would walk down 125th all the way west, in Harlem. And people would come up to ask me what I was doing here, and I said, 'I don't know. I just liked it. I felt at home.' "

But cynical views fail to acknowledge Mr. Clinton's greatest legacy: convincing many blacks who normally express alienation from the political power structure that at least one white politician genuinely and empathetically cares about them.

There is a parallel here to an important political turning point in the American past. President Franklin Roosevelt, whatever his failures of policy and character, saved the American experiment. In the wake of the Depression, many democracies flirted or fell to absolutism of the right and left. Most intellectuals sniffed that democracy was unworkable. FDR cheerfully restored faith in the idea that a freely elected government could mobilize to rescue its people from economic ruin and defeat totalitarian wartime enemies. That it was the war that restored the economy is less important than the president's boost of national morale.

Clinton has performed a similar (if less successful) task for America's crisis of race relations. For example, he is probably more popular in Africa than America because he is the first American to pay attention to Africa as something beyond a chessboard for proxy wars or a natural resource mine.

Unlike previous American leaders, he has only visited democracies in Africa. He has talked about the slave trade, failed aid policies, and genocides the United States should have stopped.

At home, he is the first American president to court openly the black vote in churches and on street corners. That the Nobel Laureate writer Toni Morrison once referred to him as "our first black president" is unsurprising. More revealing is that no other president's spin machine would play up such associations.

Of course, most of his actions have been symbolic. Clinton policy proposals have been aimed at the middle class (who vote) rather than the poor (who don't). The economic boom of the past nine years has helped inner-city blacks the least. The current downturn will hurt them the most. And because of the Clinton administration's support of mandatory minimum sentences on drug offenses, the black prison population is now at its highest level in US history.

Further, the Democratic Party has shamefully failed to promote more blacks to statewide office, especially in the South. The planetary rift between blacks - especially those in the poor inner city - and most of white America still exists.

But the US president is more than a commander, administrator, and policymaker. He is the symbol-in-chief. Or as Democratic consultant Raymond Strother put it: "In national political communication, the president is the message." Accordingly, almost uniquely, his self-symbolism can improve the outlook and morale - if not the living conditions - of ordinary folks.

Here, the message to the struggling neighborhood embodied by the smiling man formerly at the top is: "Don't give up on America yet; we care." On this basis, Clinton's Harlem relocation is good for America and for all of us, black and white.

David D. Perlmutter is senior associate for research at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at Louisiana State University. He is the author of "Photojournalism and Foreign Policy" (Greenwood, 1998) and "Visions of War" (St. Martin's, 1999).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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