Monday, February 11, 2008

Is Bill Clinton the New Michael Richards?

You know you're getting old when there's no longer a question of whether you like the music of the Grammy award winners, but merely whether you've heard of them. Prior to tonight, if someone had asked me who Amy Winehouse was, I'd have either guessed "a low-cal alcoholic drink marketed to college-age women" or "a girl who went to my high school whose name I never knew." I had heard of Kanye West, but only because of what he said about George Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

My own cultural reference points are older. I first started teaching law in the early 1990s, and even then, most of my students looked on in uncomprehending pity at my Monty Python references. Not that this stopped (or stops) me from relying on the old touchstones, but I've tried to update my material a bit. This is made difficult by my almost complete disconnection from current pop culture, so that a "current" reference for me is to a 10-year-old Seinfeld episode.

Which brings me to today's topic. Last week in my con law class I referred to a Seinfeld episode and then got that creepy feeling I now get whenever I think about Michael Richards. It's a little like the feeling I'm sure I'd get if I were to watch a Naked Gun movie and see OJ Simpson. It goes like this: Hey, that's funny. Oh right, he turned out to be a racist (Richards)/murderer (Simpson); maybe not so funny.

And so the question now arises for another 90s celeb, arguably the biggest one of all, William Jefferson Clinton III: Must those of us who formerly viewed him as a reasonably effective President who presided over 8 years of peace and prosperity, albeit one who squandered his enormous political talents because of his personal weaknesses, completely re-evaluate our picture of the 42nd President? Where we once saw a man who was hailed with affection (if also hyperbole) as "the first black President," should we now see instead the man who, when the chips are down, exploited racial divisions? Think of candidate Clinton going out of his way to execute Ricky Ray Rector or to pick a fight with Sister Souljah and prospective First Laddy Clinton dismissing Barack Obama's South Carolina victory on the ground that Jesse Jackson also won South Carolina.

So, is Bill Clinton like Michael Richards? Not entirely. Richards, under pressure from Jerry Seinfeld, apologized. So far, no apology, and no pressure from Hillary.

Posted by Mike Dorf

15 comments:

Mithras said...

As they say, politics ain't beanbag. Also, winning cures many ills, so if Hillary becomes President this unpleasantness will fade in time (especially for white voters, naturally). But if she loses, his antics will be blamed in part, tarnishing his reputation long-term.

And now for something completely different.

-M

egarber said...

So, is Bill Clinton like Michael Richards? Not entirely. Richards, under pressure from Jerry Seinfeld, apologized. So far, no apology, and no pressure from Hillary.

I'd say not even close. Whatever Bill did, he never crossed the Richards line, imo. I get the sense that with Richards, something innate about him came out; with Bill, at most he played a strategy (of course, I'm not defending it), but that doesn't make me believe he's a racist.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to egarber, check out the wikipedia entry on michael richards, which says that while in the army, Richards "produced and directed shows dealing with race relations." So maybe Richards was the one acting out of character!

Jean said...

For the record, some of your students are old enough to appreciate the Monty Python and Seinfeld references. So please keep them coming - it makes us feel more "with it," which is at times a nice change.

egarber said...

Good point Mike. Maybe this just means they both made mistakes, and that neither are racists.

Garth Sullivan said...

i too would say lighten up a little.

richardson made a bad comic choice and rode it much too far, but hey, he's a comic working the edge. there certainly doesn't appear to be a pattern of prejudice.

same with clinton.

they crossed some race lines.

so what.

they didn't disenfranchise a million black voters.

Todd_NYC said...

don't drink anymore Kool Aid. "Exploited racial divisions?" Come on, be serious.

Here's Clive Crook:

"Can it seriously be contended that the Clintons thought to advance their campaign (yes, “their” campaign) by alienating black support -- that the crushing defeat in South Carolina is something, as Morris seems to believe, they actually sought? The idea is ridiculous..."

and also Krugman:

"Jesse Jackson — a stupid way to spin a big loss, but hardly part of a coordinated campaign. ...Pretty thin gruel.

Folks, you’ve been played like a fiddle by people in the media who just plain hate the Clintons. They tried to take Hillary down over her clothes, her voice, her tears. When none of that worked, they invented a race war."

The alleged playing-of-the-race-card is now established "fact". But this fact strikes me as little more than "truthiness."

Carl said...

Here's Clive Crook:

"Can it seriously be contended that the Clintons thought to advance their campaign (yes, “their” campaign) by alienating black support -- that the crushing defeat in South Carolina is something, as Morris seems to believe, they actually sought? The idea is ridiculous..."


I don't know who this Morris is or why someone would attribute this apparently absurd view to him, but even supposing he holds it (which I doubt), ridiculing him in this way does not address the more substantive claim that Clinton started pandering to white and hispanic racists once it became apparent that his wife could not win the black vote. Pointing out that it doesn't make strategic sense to alientate potential voters is rather beside the point in this scenario.

I agree with Krugman, however, that Clinton's comments in SC were probably not part of a calculated effort to attract the racist vote. I think instead they were a reflection of his own deeply racist beliefs that a black man could not win a general election because he could only appeal to other black people and that Clinton supporters, therefore, should take SC with a grain of salt. Whether it will develop into a calculated compaign in the coming weeks and months is an entirely different question altogether.

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