Bill Clinton and black America /

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Main Author: Wickham, DeWayne.
Other Authors: Clinton, Bill, 1946-
Format: Book
Published:New York : Ballantine Books, 2002.
Edition:1st ed.
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Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The first black president: "single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas" was how Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison described Bill Clinton. And, indeed, Clinton enjoyed his highest rating with blacks even when his popularity was at its lowest. This collection of short pieces and interviews with Clinton, edited by USA Today columnist Wickham (Woodholme: A Black Man's Story of Growing up Alone), gathers a wide variety of black professionals, politicians and intellectuals addressing the myriad issues on which African-Americans engaged with the president. Terry Edmonds (Clinton's director of speech writing) captures the heart of this relationship in his statement, "for Clinton, black America was never an afterthought." Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint was troubled by Clinton's attack on Sister Souljah "for being anti-white," but was still won over by the president's appointments of black judges, cabinet and subcabinet members, and by his attendance at black churches and singing of hymns. The collection is at its best when it mixes personal anecdotes (law professor Mary Frances Berry telling Clinton jokes during a Black History Month dinner) with substantive analysis, as when William H. Gray III of the United Negro College Fund reports on helping Clinton revise his disastrous Haitian refugees policy. While a great deal of the material here states the obvious (actor/producer Tim Reid's statement that "he's given the black people something that no one has given them at this point: hope"), what comes through again and again is the manner in which his black constituency felt well represented by Clinton. (Feb.) Forecast: Clinton's current Harlem base of operations is just one more gesture of solidarity with the African-American community. But with the former president's political role in flux, this book's main audience will be those wanting a walk through the 1990s' White House domestic policy making as well as the African-Americans and many others with cases of Clinton nostalgia. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

USA Today columnist Wickham (Woodholme, 1995, etc.) surveys a wide range of African-Americans to find out why so many of them were drawn to the Clinton presidency. Black people's overwhelming approval of Clinton during his years in the White House remains somewhat puzzling in the face of a number of policies that adversely and disproportionately affected the African-American community, including the three-strike sentencing rule, drastic welfare "reform," and firm support for the death penalty, not to mention such weak-kneed acts as pulling Lani Guinier's nomination for assistant attorney general for civil rights. Among the dozens of people Wickham interviewed, famous folks and average citizens alike most frequently identified the factors mitigating these disappointments as Clinton's aura, his comfort level when talking with blacks, his basic intelligence, his speech style, his sax-playing, and (on a more practical level) the economic upswing that braced the country during his second term. One important strain is expressed by novelist Toni Morrison, who notes that "Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas," and echoed by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree: "As a southerner, as a Democrat, as someone who grew up in segregated Arkansas, he understands the black experience." Clinton's appointment of African-Americans to cabinet, senior staff, and judicial positions was critical; so too were his comments about Africa being the cradle of civilization and his apology for slavery and the nation's 400-year mistreatment of an entire people. Wickham also includes pertinent speeches by, and a long, post-presidency interview with, Clinton, but it is the words of African-Americans that strike home most forcefully. Better editing would have eliminated the excessive number of redundant comments, but this sampling feels honest as it offers both instinctive and intellectual appraisals of the Clinton appeal.

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