S.C. Kingmaker Is Staying Neutral

Rep. Jim Clyburn Says Clinton's Attacks May Toughen Up Obama

By JAKE TAPPER

COLUMBIA, S.C., Jan. 21, 2008—

"I'm like everybody else, I'm torn," South Carolina Democrat Jim Clyburn says of his presidential choices in the primary coming up this Saturday.

Except, of course, Clyburn is not like everybody else. He's the House Majority Whip, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, and a kingmaker here in the Palmetto State.

He has remained neutral in this race, between the first serious black presidential contender, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and the wife of a man once referred to as "the first black president" by Toni Morrison, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clyburn, 67, says he takes enormous personal pride in Obama's candidacy. But as the father three girls, he also takes pride in Clinton's historic run. "She is doing things for them as well," he says.

Staying out of the fray has not been easy, and for a time this month Clyburn almost recanted his impartiality to protest comments Clinton made about civil rights that he saw as demeaning. Clinton had talked about how "it took a president to get it done," praising President Johnson for signing the Civil Rights Act into law and seeming to diminish the activism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I was bothered by that," Clyburn tells ABC News. "You work hard, you try to create a climate within which young African-Americans would not have to go through the same difficulties you went through."

He saw Clinton's comments as an affront to "those activists who put those issues on the table."

Elected president of his NAACP youth chapter in 1952, when he was 12-years-old, Clyburn was deeply involved in the civil rights struggles in South Carolina. He was arrested in 1960 as one of 388 college students marching through Orangeburg, holding signs saying "We Want Liberty" and "Segregation Is Dead." One year later he was jailed for marching on the state capitol in Columbia.

"I remember the debate of what should be in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Voting was left out of that because LBJ insisted that it should not be in there," he says. "It was not until a year later, after Bloody Sunday, when MLK and John Lewis and others, took that fateful walk across Edmund Pettis' bridge, is when we got the Voting Rights Act. So who was most important to that? LBJ, who would not allow it in 1964, or those people who forced it in in 1965?"

He didn't have time to recount this to Clinton when she called him as he traveled, as she and her allies tried to prevent him from endorsing Obama in this crucial Southern primary, in which up to 50 percent of the voters may be black.

"I certainly reminded President Clinton when I spoke to him, because I talked with him twice about it," Clyburn says.

Ultimately Clyburn stayed neutral, abiding by his promise to the Democratic National Committee, which "told me up front that the candidates were very concerned about the candidates having this primary and my getting actively involved on behalf of one or the other candidates, and the rest of them would boycott it. And they couldn't have that. So I am keeping my promise to the party because I think this whole thing is much bigger than my emotions."

The Clintons said that Clyburn must have been misinformed about what they had actually said. (Bill Clinton was also criticized by some blacks for referring to Obama's campaign as "a fairy tale." He said he was just referring to Obama's description of his opposition to the war in Iraq, though others took the remark as a broader dismissal of his candidacy.)

"I wouldn't say I was misinformed," Clyburn says. "But when I spoke with her, and the president -- the former president -- they explained to me what their intentions were."

Clinton's comments about King were not in a vacuum, coming as they did amidst an onslaught of attacks on Obama that many in black communities saw as containing racial subtexts and as part of a pattern. Former President Bill Clinton used dismissive language -- calling Obama a "kid " -- while two different high-profile Clinton surrogates made public reference to Obama's teenage use of marijuana and cocaine.

The drug references especially concerned many blacks who saw the references as feeding into racial stereotypes, even if one of the Clinton surrogates making the reference was African-American billionaire Bob Johnson, the founder of BET.

"I share that concern," Clyburn says.

Johnson maintained for days that his allusion to Obama's drug use was actually a reference to Obama's days as a community organizer, insisting righteously that anyone who asserted otherwise was "irresponsible and incorrect." Behind the scenes, though, Clyburn says, he knew he had erred.

"He called me after that and expressed remorse, and we talked about it, and two days later he issued an apology," Clyburn says. "He had time to think about the whole thing, and he did the right thing, and he's a good guy. "

Clyburn doesn't disagree with the assessment from camp Obama that all these attacks are of a piece.

"Campaigns for primaries are a part of the preliminaries," he says. "And you've got to get toughened up in the preliminaries in order to do well in the finals. So it seems to me that if we know this kind of thing's out there, you would do well to experience this during the preliminaries so that you will know how to adjust to it or react to it when you get into the finals. And so I would say, as unfair as some of this may be, get used to it. Because if you're around for the general election, you're going to have to come face to face with it."

So in a way, the Clintons and their surrogates are doing Obama a favor?

"Could well be," Clyburn says. "Whoever's doing this could very well be doing this guy a great favor. Because if he survives it, he'll be a much better candidate. If he doesn't survive it, he wouldn't survive it."

Black voters were heartened, Clyburn says, to see Obama do more than survive the Iowa caucuses, saying "that redefined the race. And I think you will see that his support in the African-American community went up dramatically. He won in a state where there's very little African-American vote. That's always been the case. When I first ran for office, the first time I sat down with a mature elder statesmen in the black community, that was the first discussion we had, was, 'Can you get white votes?'"

The question remains, however.

Clyburn says Obama still has to contend with what some call the "Bradley effect," whites who tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate, but in the privacy of the voting booth do not -- a reference to the unsuccessful gubernatorial run of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who led in pre-election polls.

"No doubt about it," Clyburn says. "I think there was a little of that up in New Hampshire." Katie Hinman contributed to this report.