The big question of the presidential election, says L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor, is not whether America is ready for a black president. Rather, he asks, “Are the Clintons ready?”
What Democratic candidate Barack Obama needs, says Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., is for Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton to provide a “Pee Wee Reese moment,” referring to the white ballplayer who embraced Jackie Robinson when white baseball fans rained abuse on the pioneering Dodger.
As the Democratic National Convention began Monday, some black delegates who are pledged to Obama are unhappy -- even seething -- at what they say is weak support from the former president and first lady in the wake of a bitter primary campaign.
Their anger is the latest turn in the ongoing rivalry between the Clinton and Obama camps, a breach Democrats must repair if they are to win over lagging Clinton supporters. It is boiling over at an inopportune time -- with the race against Republican John McCain tightening to a dead heat and the Obama campaign hoping that this week’s Democratic gathering will convey a sense of unity and momentum.
Instead, in interviews with delegates and aides to the rival camps, it was clear Monday that tensions have only swelled since the heat of a primary competition fraught with racial, gender and generational differences. Obama backers are frustrated that the Clintons do not seem willing to let go of their 16-year dominance of the Democratic Party, while Clinton aides complained privately that the young presumed nominee is not paying them proper respect -- a tension heightened by the revelation that Obama never seriously considered his rival as a running mate.
The mutual frustration comes amid reports that Bill Clinton and the Obama camp are at odds over the substance of the former president’s speech to the convention Wednesday. That report led to a joint unity statement on Monday.
“There is absolutely no cause for this, no reason for this continuing divide,” said Wilder, the former Virginia governor who is now mayor of Richmond. “Do you want to win or not?”
In an interview conducted before he took part in a panel on race sponsored by Politico, Wilder laughed off the argument forwarded by Clintonites that the couple endorsed Obama and have promised to deliver gracious speeches. The New York senator, Wilder countered, could easily signal to her supporters the gravity of the situation.
“All she has to do is say, ‘Finished. Over. I’m here, I’m supporting [Obama], and you don’t help me by doing what you’re doing,’ ” Wilder said, adding later that he came to the morning panel to “ask the question as to whether America is ready for an African American president. The question is, are the Clintons ready? That’s what it comes down to.”
Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a leading African American lawmaker and the third-most powerful Democrat in the House, was critical of the Clintons’ tactics during the primaries. In an interview Monday, he said he did not hold them responsible for the current concerns but is worried about how Sen. Clinton’s supporters might cloud the convention.
“We learned coming out of the caucuses that sound bites can in fact be detrimental,” Clyburn said. “So, irrespective of what may or may not happen on the [convention] floor . . . the problem is you might have two or three people who will say something, and that may become the headline.”
Race had been the backdrop of tensions between the Clinton and Obama camps for months in a primary campaign that amounted to a fight between choosing the country’s first female or first black presidential nominee. Obama backers were angry when President Clinton, renowned for his good relations with black America, appeared to narrow-cast the Obama candidacy as appealing mostly to black voters, comparing it to past campaigns by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the lawmaker’s father. Bill Clinton later accused the campaign of playing the race card against him, citing a sheet of talking points directing Obama staffers to take issue with Clinton’s remarks on Jackson.
One African American Obama delegate, Marvin Sutton, said he regretted that the Clinton-Obama rivalry had gone on for so long.
“The campaigns should have come together earlier on,” said Sutton, 46, of Arlington, Texas. “The longer you’re divided, the longer it takes for us to get the ball rolling.”
The tension this week stems in part from the prominence being given to the Clintons -- the former first lady is to speak tonight, a day before the former president -- and the concern that the couple will draw precious media exposure when Obama needs to introduce himself to the nation.
“We’ve only got four good prime-time hours at this convention, and we’re using one of them for this?” said a black congressman who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of criticizing the Clintons. “All I can say is, Obama’s a bigger man than I am.”
One senior advisor to Obama’s campaign said the Clintons should be more fully involved in persuading their base to help the new nominee.
“It’s not about making public statements. It’s about calling her friends up and telling them, ‘I want you to do one thing more for me, and that is to help this ticket,’ ” the advisor said. “She’s got to deliver that message personally.”
Clinton backers are sore too.
A former Clinton advisor said Monday that Bill Clinton is not happy that he has been asked to deliver a speech on national security. The former president would prefer to talk broadly about both domestic and foreign policy, with an emphasis on the economy, the source said. The dispute was first reported by Politico.
“When former presidents come to a convention, they talk about what they want to talk about,” the former advisor said.
Still, there were signs of thaw.
On Wednesday, an aide said, Sen. Clinton will meet privately with her delegates and release them to Obama, meaning she wants them to cast their votes for him in the traditional roll call scheduled for later that night.
The campaigns are negotiating a plan in which the roll call vote would be interrupted so that Obama could be declared the winner by unanimous consent -- a move that is seen as offering respect to Clinton while limiting embarrassing division for Obama.
Leading Democrats said Monday that the camps must soothe racial wounds if Obama is to woo crucial voters -- and if the Clintons are to safeguard their legacy.
“I know this is going to happen because Hillary Clinton is a professional,” said Rep. Jackson. Just as a statue in New York honors the partnership of ballplayers Reese and Robinson, so someday in Denver “they might have a statue with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama embracing.”
“Now is the time,” Jackson said, adding, “We’ll be watching.”
Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.