Reflecting a widespread view among black Americans that the nation's law enforcement system is riddled with unfairness, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are pledging to monitor the debate on the Monica S. Lewinsky affair to ensure President Clinton gets a fair hearing.
Even though many black lawmakers say they disapprove of the personal behavior attributed to Clinton in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report, they continue to support the president's agenda and fear what will happen if he is forced out of office.
"As African Americans, as people who have a history of having to fight to make sure there is justice and equality in the criminal justice system, we can't allow anybody to be railroaded because they have certain political interests," Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The fear of losing Clinton as the nation's chief executive weighs heavily on black Americans, so much so that they have been among the last to condemn him for behavior they find morally offensive. Indeed, as rumors of sexual liaisons with former White House intern Lewinsky evolved into accusations of obstruction of justice and perjury, black lawmakers have remained unshaken in their support for the beleaguered president.
"There is a certain black identification with Bill Clinton as someone who stands up for black Americans," said David Bositis, senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented think tank in Washington. "Clinton would have to do something that's a direct affront to African Americans for them to turn against him."
Bositis said black Americans identify with Clinton's fight against Starr because they see the president as someone who is being pursued by a law enforcement official who is determined to find something incriminating.
"It's like the situation of a police officer pulling over a black man in a car for having a broken taillight," Bositis said, drawing an analogy that resonates with black Americans. "Starr was supposed to be investigating Whitewater, but it ended up in a sex scandal that has nothing to do with Whitewater. The way black Americans see Clinton is: If they don't get him for one thing, they'll get him for something else."
That's why Waters and her 35-member caucus are leading the spirited defense of Clinton.
"The Congressional Black Caucus is going to live up to our responsibility of making sure that America honors the Constitution and that the criminal justice system, whether it's Ken Starr or anybody else, will not abuse their power and run rampant over the rights of the highest of those, the president of the United States, or the lowest of those," said Waters, a member of the House Judiciary Committee that will conduct hearings into the Starr report.
The caucus' concern was evident Friday when 29 black lawmakers voted against a public release of Starr's accusations until the White House had a chance to review and rebut its findings. The vote was 363 to 63 in favor of an immediate public airing of the accusations contained in Starr's report.
Appearing Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) defended his vote against the public release of the Starr report. "Why is this sleazy tabloid material constructive about anything that has to do with our inquiry?" asked Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "I think it reveals the partisan motives of which Ken Starr was constantly accused."
Public opinion polls show wider, deeper and more consistent black support for Clinton than among other measured groups. According to a recent poll of 2,266 adults reached by telephone on Aug. 27 and Sept. 8 and released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan Washington polling concern, Clinton garnered an 88% job approval rating and a 90% overall favorable opinion among black Americans. Comparable breakdowns were not available for other minority groups, including Latinos and Asians.
"That's considerably higher than among whites, for whom 61% approve of his job performance and 57% have an overall favorable opinion," said Gregory Flemming, survey director of the Pew poll.
The Pew survey showed black Americans are more likely to oppose Clinton's removal from office in the wake of his admission of an affair with Lewinsky, with only 13% of the blacks surveyed saying the matter was of importance to the country compared to 34% of whites. Only 6% of black respondents said Clinton should resign, and 91% said he should remain in the Oval Office (compared with 20% and 76% of whites, respectively).
"We are so afraid of what might come after him, if he leaves," said Signithia Fordham, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. "It's not that African Americans are overlooking his breach in appropriate behavior, but we are making a practical and political decision that is in our best interests. We say this president is the best of the evils that could happen to us and the country."
Times staff writer Marc Lacey in Washington contributed to this story.