Start with the picture. It was taken in the first week of March 1992, a photo of a press conference. At the center is 46-year-old Bill Clinton at a pair of microphones. He is flanked by three Georgia politicians, conservative Democrats, including Rep. Ben Jones, better known for having played Cooter on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” They are posing at the base of Stone Mountain, not far from Atlanta. With its carvings of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, it is a monument to the Confederacy and the fulcrum of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
Clinton has chosen the jail at Stone Mountain for his press conference, and what is still startling is the background: Several dozen mostly Black male prisoners in white jumpsuits, arranged in receding rows. If you want to know how the Democratic Party lost the thread on race in America, this is as good a place as any since Reconstruction to start.
In the 1992 Democratic presidential primaries, the first race, the Iowa caucus, was won handily by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. Clinton, the Arkansas governor, garnered a miserable 2.8% of the vote. The second contest, in New Hampshire, saw Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas take the most votes, beating Clinton by about 33% to 25%. In the Maine caucus, on Feb. 23, Tsongas was the winner again, followed by former California Gov. Jerry Brown, with Clinton in a distant third. In the South Dakota primary, on Feb. 25, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey swept the field, with Clinton again in a distant third place.
In the next seven races, on March 3, Clinton won one, Georgia. Now the Clinton campaign was staring down the barrel of Super Tuesday, on March 10, when 11 states would hold primaries. He needed strong showings in Florida, Texas and other Southern states to stay viable.
Democrats generally were thought to have little chance against President George H.W. Bush, running for re-election. The president’s 1988 campaign had dunked on Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis by portraying him as soft on crime and Black criminals. Clinton needed to show he was not that guy. What he could not see then and what Clinton Democrats could not admit for a long time afterward – until just yesterday, really – was that they were caught in a false tough/soft binary about Black crime and Black people. Instead, Bill went to Stone Mountain.
“I can be nicked on a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime,” he later explained.
The whole point was the photo: the expediency. Harkin was disgusted. “We can’t afford to have pictures like this going around America in major newspapers because it sends the wrong message about what we want to be as Americans,” he said. So was Brown: “Two white men and 40 Black prisoners, what’s he saying? He’s saying, ‘We got ’em under control, folks.”
Ah, but expediency. It worked. Clinton won eight of the Super Tuesday states, including Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas, then the nomination and the presidency. Two and a half years later, he signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in U.S. history. Sen. Joe Biden was figuratively by his side, urging him to up the ante on policing and incarceration of Black Americans.
By all rights, such figures belong to a generation that should have passed from the political scene by now, along with their accomplishments and faults, to be succeeded by new leaders in both parties with a greater sensitivity to racism, which comparatively is not that hard to achieve. Today, we would almost expect it from a child.