Growing up, I was often jolted awake by my mother howling away at late night television. But there was one night I remember in particular, a night she wouldn’t stop. Bleary-eyed, I got out of bed and ran to the kitchen to hear the joke. I found her on the phone with my Nana.
“This is the closest we're ever gonna get to a black president.” Bill Clinton had just played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, in sunglasses.
As far as I was concerned, the Clinton cool factor began and stopped with Bill. I was eight years old when Hillary Clinton became First Lady. And from the beginning, all the black people in my small world loved her husband, not her.
For a child of the ‘90s like me, Hillary was - for better or worse - quite unremarkable. I didn’t grow up in an age where wives were accessories, so her personal accomplishments and outspokenness didn’t read as especially novel to me. Hillary was a slightly more manicured version of the 45-year-old white moms whizzing around the neighborhood where I grew up, the Upper West Side, in sneakers and a power suit at rush hour. Honestly, the most memorable part of Hillary Clinton as First Lady for me was her scrunchy collection.
The substantive moments of Hillary’s First-Ladyship were lost on me. I never heard my mom and dad talk about her as the savvy politician she’d become. I only recall them complaining: that she campaigned (to no avail) for universal health care; that she bloated her experience in war-torn Bosnia for more street cred; that early on she became a feminist icon for white, upper middle-class women when she said she could have “stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” instead of “fulfilling” her profession. During the Clinton years my mom didn’t have the option of being a stay-at-home mom.
Bill Clinton won the trust, love and respect of black people. Despite his assault on the welfare system and draconian approach to curbing crime, the Clinton brand remained synonymous with loyalty to the black community. So when Hillary first announced her candidacy in 2008, she unsurprisingly had the support of the black establishment. Heavy hitters from Rep. Charlie Rangel to Rep. John Lewis to writer Maya Angelou endorsed her. And at first so did black voters. But as Senator Obama rose to prominence, a clear fissure emerged between old and new, between young and old. My generation was excited by a candidate who sold himself as a break from Washington cronyism. And Hillary, with her support from America’s Black political elite, embodied it.
The black establishment ultimately failed Hillary Clinton. And when it was clear she’d lost the black vote, Hillary Clinton failed black voters. She began to present herself as a champion of the white working class. In a desperate bid to win over the “blue-collar vote,” she rebranded herself as a good ol’ Scranton girl, and was photographed in an Indiana bar throwing back whiskey and beer with the locals. She told USA Today that she was a better candidate because Obama couldn’t gain traction among “hard working Americans, white Americans.” When asked whether or not she thought Barack Obama was a Muslim - a mud slinging tactic used by the right to defame him - she encouraged doubt when she said she didn’t think he was “as far as I know.”
Hillary’s divisive campaign was one giant turn-off. Her tactics felt desperately political — deserting the black community made her look more a flip-flopper than John Kerry ever was.
But Obama’s historic win helped people like me move on. If the President had the capacity to welcome her into his Administration for the sake of the Democratic party then maybe we could all suspend our anger.
And now here we are smack dab in the middle of a political landscape marked by obstruction and cynicism. And that is why Hillary has got a real good chance at winning this thing. There is no generation chomping at the bit for radical change inside of Washington. There is no lightning bolt transcending the “Washington as usual” slogan. Hillary Clinton is the physical manifestation of Washington as usual. Unless something wildly unexpected happens, she will likely get the black vote, because she’s a democrat who carries the last name Clinton. In his article from last year “Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Need Liberals,”writer Jamelle Bouie broke down the numbers from her last go round to conclude that “Hillary Clinton can’t lose the 2016 Democratic primary, period,” because she has the support of black voters.
The black vote she may have, but black people’s enthusiasm she is not guaranteed.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.