This is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics," Book by Donna Brazile, Leah Daughtry, Yolanda Caraway and Minyon Moore. Copyright © 2018 by the authors and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC. Used with permission.
16 -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Colored Girls
We did not expect that four years after working with Hillary Clinton to get Barack Obama elected to the U.S. Senate, we would find Clinton and Obama running against each other for the Democratic nomination. But when that moment came, we invited both the candidates to dinner. Minyon notes that, as time went on, “Some of the dinners we would open to a larger group of black women. That was especially true for then-Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. Women like then- chairman and CEO of BET Debra Lee and prominent attorney Florence Prioleau were regulars.” She adds, “We really wanted to bring other African American women to the dinners, not as much for our benefit as for the benefit of the potential candidates. Each of the women had her own sphere of influence: social, political, economic, and geographic. They could be an important resource for any candidate as the candidates moved around the country during their campaigns. We always made the point to the candidates that they should consider these women as resources and reach out to them for advice, suggestions, and connections to other folks.”
Leah remembers that the Hillary dinner had so many guests that “We had to have the restaurant expand the usual table to accommodate the number. We were in a big square, with Hillary sitting between Maggie Williams and Minyon. The evening was light and enjoyable. There was no subject that Hillary couldn’t discuss in depth. That night, she easily navigated between being a policy wonk and being a girlfriend. She was completely and totally at ease. In the after-dinner conversation, all the women agreed that they were wowed by her intellect and her ease. It was clear that she would be a great president and that many would have signed on to her campaign that night, if there’d been a campaign. She hadn’t declared her candidacy yet.”
Over dinner, Hillary drank a gin and tonic and ordered what the Colored Girls called “a big old steak.” She also cut right to the chase and said, “I want your support, and I’ll do what I need to do to get it.” Minyon says of Clinton, “Make no mistake about it: she wowed us effortlessly. A true connection was made with the expanded group of black women. [Hillary] was, as they say, comfortable in her own skin. This type of setting wasn’t new to her. She knew many of the women at the dinner. Maybe history was unbroken continuity: her mentors and friends were Marian Wright Edelman, Dorothy Height, and Dr. Maya Angelou. So many of us shared that bond. [Hillary’s] longtime friend and chief of staff at the White House was Maggie Williams, our friend and colleague of many years. When she took her seat, she didn’t feel like a stranger at the table. There was a round of drinks, laughs, and then down to business. I think what surprised many was [Hillary’s] depth of knowledge and her command of the issues. Seriously smart. Eerily smart. Was she too smart? Was America ready for the first woman president? Well, you couldn’t help but ask the question. We wondered how she would deal with the sexism and the misogynistic behavior. Unfortunately, being smart couldn’t shield her from the deep-seated fears and hatred that were yet to come. Hillary was being touted as the front-runner. Maybe it was an idea whose time had come. I think, in many ways, the woman that sat with us at that dinner table was more hopeful and full of life. She had a certain confidence in her tone. While she wasn’t born for this, she was certainly prepared to take on one of the great challenges of her life—at least we thought so. There is no doubt she would have been a superb and even phenomenal president. I would say after the dinner, many people were leaning toward Hillary. I remember one of the women pulling me aside and saying, ‘I think I will go with Obama. I think we need to be in all camps.’”
As the race got under way, there was nothing in those dinners that prepared us for seeing young men standing up in audiences and yelling, “Hillary, will you iron my shirts?” or holding up vulgar, degrading signs. Nothing in those dinners would have told us that Hillary would be running against a young black man whose hopeful message was inspiring a new generation to get involved. At those dinners, we could not foresee history about to collide or race and gender being put on display in ways we could never have imagined. We had no road map to deal with these two historic and emotional touchpoints.
The Obama dinner was held in the private dining room at Ruth’s Chris in Chinatown. It was one of the larger dinners, with a table expander brought in to accommodate all the guests. At that dinner, Leah, who sat next to Obama, remembers, “His expectation was that he was walking into a room of adorers and supporters.” When the questions started, he didn’t seem to like it. Donna asked him what his 2168 strategy was, and he bristled. Another participant asked him, “What’s your race strategy?” And we all remember him saying, “Oh, race won’t be an issue. America is past that.” That left us all with our mouths slightly ajar. Obama’s belief was that American families’ problems were universal, and “to close the gap between minority and white workers may have little to do with race at all.”
The Obama we met that night at dinner represented a kind of bargaining that made us uncomfortable. In the Los Angeles Times, conservative columnist Shelby Steele criticized Obama’s “post-black” platform:
Obama’s special charisma -- since his famous 2004 convention speech -- always came much more from the racial idealism he embodied than from his political ideas. In fact, this was his only true political originality... This worked politically for Obama because it tapped into a deep longing in American life -- the longing on the part of whites to escape the stigma of racism. In running for the presidency -- and presenting himself to a majority white nation -- Obama knew intuitively that he was dealing with a stigmatized people. He knew whites were stigmatized as being prejudiced, and that they hated this situation and literally longed for ways to disprove the stigma.
At those dinners, we shared a little of what we had learned over decades of work on presidential campaigns. Leah was DNC chief of staff at the time: “I was required to be neutral through the primary season. At the point of the dinners, there were no candidates at all, so it was really easy to be neutral. As candidates announced, I felt lucky that I didn’t have to make the hard decision to choose any of them. But I was also really confident that any of the candidates would be a good choice.”
The dinner with Obama was tough, tougher than any of us expected. Obama was reserved and a bit overconfident. As Leah remembers, “Some of it was, I think, black male bravado, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I have a father, a brother, and nephews. We know that this is a world where black men have learned, out of necessity and circumstance, how to mask their insecurity. He came in trying to be comfortable, but he didn’t know us. He never asked for help. You didn’t feel like he was genuinely interested in engaging with the group outside of the dinner conversation. I didn’t leave that meeting thinking he was going to reach back to the group.”
Of Obama, Minyon says, “Well, how should I say this? I found it no surprise he would go on to become president. First, he is a rule breaker.” In defiance of the Colored Girls’ first rule, he showed up with a staff person. Senator Obama was at the height of his popularity when word started surfacing that he might run for president, so next to Hillary’s dinner, his dinner was by far the second most popular. She adds, “Then-Senator Obama was an incredibly confident person, so I am still not sure that this dinner ever rose to the level of importance in which he saw himself. Nonetheless, he came, and the women were eager to hear from the senator from Illinois. While he didn’t have the relationships that Hillary had with many in the room, he displayed a certain comfortability -- like he belonged. We were eager to hear his vision and eager to get to know more about him. We were also deeply concerned about how race would be handled with his candidacy. Some of that was born out of experience and fear. I remember when he said, ‘Race won’t be a problem.’ Many saw that as naïve on the one hand, but others thought, ‘Maybe he will be able to deal with America’s greatest sin... race in America as a biracial American.’ What stood out for me that night,” she continues, was that “Obama, while he didn’t have the knowledge base the others had, he had something that continues to carry him forward to this day: he believed in himself, and he believed in the American people, and sometimes that is enough. He was an idea whose time had come. For me personally, it was a decision point. I had worked for Senator Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ PAC, which was training a new generation of political operatives. I had also worked with Senator Clinton. I eventually had hopes of working for the first female president.”
The dinner with Obama foreshadowed an issue that would later surface between political veterans and the new-school team that made up the Obama campaign. The veterans believed that history was unbroken continuity. We’d garnered extensive experience from eight successful years in the White House, in addition to so many presidential campaigns. This experience would be invaluable to any presidential candidate, and many wanted to put that to work for the Obama campaign. The new folks, on the other hand, seemed unaware of what had been accomplished or who had accomplished it. And in that, it felt like history had been erased, or at least overlooked.
So, after a season of dinners with the Democratic candidates, this was where we landed: Minyon, Yolanda, and Tina supported Hillary. Leah, as chief of staff of the DNC and convention CEO, was neutral, because she had to be. Donna was uncommitted.