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Fracture: Author Joy-Ann Reid on Barack Obama, the Clintons and the Racial Divide

StorySeptember 21, 2015
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In the new book, “Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide,” MSNBC national correspondent Joy-Ann Reid looks at the history of race relations in the U.S. while tracing the political shifts in the Democratic Party through the relationship between the Clintons and Obama. “The fundamental question that the Democratic Party has faced over the last 50 years is what to do with Johnson’s legacy, whether to run away from it, which the party by and large did, really spearheaded by Bill Clinton, who really shifted the party to the right, as a corrective to what I think a lot of party leaders saw as the electoral consequences of embracing so much social change,” Reid said. Reid was the host of MSNBC’s “The Reid Report” and a press aide in the final stretch of Barack Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with a conversation with Joy-Ann Reid, national correspondent for MSNBC. She used to host The Reid Report and was a press aide in the final stretch of Barack Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008. She has written a book called Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide, which looks at the history of race relations in the U.S. while tracing the political shifts in the Democratic Party through the relationship between the Clintons and President Obama. Last week, Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I sat down with Joy-Ann Reid, and I began by asking her what exactly is the fracture she sees occurring between Barack Obama and not just Hillary Clinton, but the Clintons.

JOY-ANN REID: It’s interesting, because in 2008, in that campaign, you really did see both of the Clintons litigating with then-Senator Obama the legacy of the civil rights era. And they ran into trouble over their interpretation of the dichotomy between the Kingian nonviolent movement for social change, for economic empowerment, but also for the right to vote, and the Lyndon Johnson real break with his own party and with the once-Democratic, solid, segregated South on the issue of civil rights. And they ran into trouble, but the fundamental question that the Democratic Party has faced over the last 50 years is what to do with Johnson’s legacy, whether to run away from it, which the party by and large did, really spearheaded by Bill Clinton, who shifted the party to the right as a corrective to what I think a lot of party leaders saw as the consequences, the electoral consequences, of embracing so much social change.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But you actually go back and look at how this developed even before the Clintons and the role of the Jesse Jackson campaign within the Democratic Party, as well. Could you talk about that, as well?

JOY-ANN REID: Yeah, absolutely. I think there have been several fractures in the party, and the first, of course, was this break that Lyndon Johnson made from his own heritage, really, as a Southern politician, a Southern Democrat. And then I think the next one really was with Jesse Jackson. You know, when Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984, it was a movement, and it was a movement that was not embraced either by the black political leadership or by the Democratic Party leadership. But this incredible movement really did fundamentally transform the party. He won several important concessions at the convention, because he was so successful both in that campaign and in 1988 in just registering millions and millions of voters, many of them African-American. You saw really this fundamental shift in the way delegates were awarded, in the way the party had to campaign, in the reintroduction of the need for Southern politics, that really made Barack Obama’s rise possible, because he could actually sort of bleed the Clinton campaign over the course of these small races because of Jesse Jackson.

AMY GOODMAN: How did President Clinton deal with Jesse Jackson?

JOY-ANN REID: It was interesting, because once Jesse Jackson had achieved these two back-to-back campaigns, that really were successful political movements that galvanized African Americans, the party had to decide what to do with him. And by 1988, really, the answer was, you know, we’re going to set him aside. And Bill Clinton really led that in 1992, when he essentially rebuked Jesse Jackson, and he was also at the same time, people will recall, rebuking Mario Cuomo and the liberal, McGovernite wing of the party. And he did so in very stark terms, as a way of signalizing to really white working-class voters that this is a party that’s not beholden to the Jackson wing, this is a candidacy that’s not beholden to Jackson himself. And that rejection of Jackson in 1992 really reset the party with white working-class voters, helped Bill Clinton to win the White House. But it set a tone for the party that was very center-right and that had liberals within the party really left yearning for a movement of their own. And it took quite a long time for the liberal wing to come back and for the African-American sort of part of that movement to find its own voice. But they definitely did in 2008.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet—but yet you say that Jackson and Clinton did develop a personal relationship of some sorts.

JOY-ANN REID: Yeah, one of Bill Clinton’s great talents—he is a very deft politician and a Southern politician, so politicians in the South, including Jimmy Carter, had long had this dichotomy of holding the African-American vote with one hand and the white rural vote with the other, and being able to do both. And because Bill Clinton is so personally conversant with African Americans, in such an easy and sort of natural relationship, he was able to surmount that both with black voters, but also with Jesse Jackson. He had a personal relationship with the guy. They could set up until 3:00 in the morning talking politics. He could walk into a black church with Jesse Jackson, and the two of them both know the second and third stanzas of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and maybe not even everyone in the pews might, but he did. And I think that Bill Clinton’s personal gift as a politician helped him overcome some of the political strains that he himself created with policy.

AMY GOODMAN: He just spoke at Jackson’s mother’s funeral, is that right?

JOY-ANN REID: Absolutely. And that relationship developed personally, and I talk in the book about how they first sort of got together sitting in the Governor’s Mansion in Arkansas and sitting up 'til 3:00 in the morning when Hillary Clinton had to literally kick Jesse Jackson out, because the two of them just sat up talking politics and really enjoying each other's company. This is a really interesting relationship that’s had its ups and its downs, but that at the end of the day has remained really close.

AMY GOODMAN: So how does that translate into Hillary Clinton running for president now, in 2015, ’16?

JOY-ANN REID: Yeah, it’s interesting, because Hillary Clinton has had this remarkable arc over the course of her life, from being a sort of conservative, “Goldwater Girl” teenager to being this really fierce, feminist young lawyer in Arkansas and this, you know, advocate or this acolyte of Marian Wright Edelman, to then having to shift back into a traditional first lady role after really being rebuked for trying to have a policy portfolio of her own with healthcare. And so she sort of occupied this strange space that has mirrored the Democratic Party, that’s gone left, she’s gone right, she’s been hawkish, she’s been sort of the neocon in the party. And now she’s trying to find her own individual voice and balance whether she is, in a sense, looked at as a Clinton restoration candidate or an Obama continuation candidate, because she has a role, really, in both of those administrations, in both of those wings of the party. So she has this sort of odd space, and she hasn’t really decided which camp to really come down on. And she really needs to, because she needs that ascendant Obama coalition in order to become president.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the issue of the racial divide during the Obama administration, we’ve seen, especially after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the continuing incidents all across the country of police abuse, that the president has been challenged in terms of how he responds to this huge and growing concern in the African-American community and among people of color in the United States.

JOY-ANN REID: Yeah, and issues of policing underlie the movements around black civic justice going back a hundred years. I mean, if you go back to the 1960s, the majority of the riots that took place in urban centers were around incidents of police brutality or allegations of police misconduct against black citizens that caused these eruptions. It’s been that way for a long time; we just didn’t have cellphones to document it before. So Barack Obama comes along in a moment when his ascendancy was tied to this idea he could transcend race, that he could get the country beyond it, really by not really addressing it and not sticking that needle into the large body politic. But he finds that because, A, he is an African-American man, he can’t really avoid showing that inner self at these moments. And he showed it with Trayvon Martin. Though that was not a police incident, it was likened to it, because this was a person acting sort of in the guise of a police officer. It happens again with Michael Brown. And I think what the president finds is that his original sort of attempting to embrace this larger vision of race is unsatisfying to African Americans. And African Americans say, “No, we want you to litigate this issue and to respond to it and to speak our pain from the pulpit of the presidency.” And it takes President Obama quite a while to do it, because I think he just feels he has this duty as president. But he, over time, starts to unfold that little by little, until now you really see a president who’s kind of come into his own talking about race, which I think happened around Selma, and you started to see him really open up. The African-American community and white Americans have very different expectations when it comes to talking race. On the one hand, there’s this desire to transcend it and sort of heal the past and say the past is past. But African Americans, the past is present, and they want it discussed.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by President Obama earlier this year during his address to the NAACP’s annual convention, where he spoke about racism as, quote, “the legacy of slavery and segregation.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By just about every measure, the life chances for black and Hispanic youth still lag far behind those of their white peers. Our kids, America’s children, so often are isolated, without hope, less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to earn a college degree, less likely to be employed, less likely to have health insurance, less likely to own a home. A part of this is a legacy of hundreds of years of slavery and segregation and structural inequalities that compounded over generations.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama addressing the NAACP. Now, you were his press aide in Florida, assistant press aide, in the last days of his run in 2008. How do you think he has changed? Has he disappointed you? Has he surprised you?

JOY-ANN REID: Well, you know, I think that the president has changed fundamentally in the way that he communicates with African Americans. The earlier iterations of then-Senator and President Obama would have followed those statements by saying we also have to turn off the TV and tell black parents to be present in the home and sit up with little Johnny and do the homework, and he had this sort of admonition style that’s very much in the pastor style. There is a tradition even in the black church of telling parents to, you know, pull up the kids—make the kids pull up their pants and behave themselves. And he had that part of his presentation, which was much like what Bill Clinton would often do in black churches in his political career. And it’s successful in the room, but I think outside of the room and in a growing body particularly of young black intellectuals and the younger African-American cohort, that was received as blaming the victim and constantly lecturing African Americans without really directly addressing the structural inequalities in the country.

Well, present-day President Obama, particularly in the last 18 months, is really where you just saw him at the NAACP, where he’s able to speak to the ongoing structural inequalities African Americans experience in real life, and I think he’s more comfortable doing that. I think the White House, you know, their side of the story would be, well, the reason he didn’t spend more time on race before is he was dealing with an economy that was cratering and other things. But I really do think there’s a greater comfort level that you can see in President Obama in talking about race the way his fellow African Americans talk about race all the time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But is it also, perhaps, seeing that it’s coming in the last couple of years of an eight-year term—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —his own realization that his expectation to take the country beyond racial conflicts has not happened?

JOY-ANN REID: Yeah, I think that the idea—and I do write about the fact that I think that there was a belief in a—a false belief, in a way, in the Obama team, not just—and that comes from the top—that his being president could help the country sort of surmount this issue of race and could render his race almost incidental to his presidency, that the successes in policy would spread across race and would sort of help him to surmount it. That was not possible. I even believed at the time, when then-Senator Obama was running, that if he won, we would have a reckoning on who we were as a country, as a multiracial democracy, and that it would be not always pretty. I haven’t been that surprised that there’s been a lot of ugliness tied to the presidency of Barack Obama, because we still have a lot of racial baggage as a country. We just don’t like to talk about it. We have to talk about it, with a black family in the White House. And he had to unfortunately experience some of the direct and really ugly sides of this country as president. But doing it as president, I think, makes a difference, because it forces the country to reckon with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s contrast President Obama with Hillary Clinton. Last month, a group of Black Lives Matter activists from Massachusetts met with Hillary Clinton following a campaign event in New Hampshire. I want to go to a clip of the exchange. It begins with Daunasia Yancey of Black Lives Matter Boston.

DAUNASIA YANCEY: But your—you and your family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused health and human services disasters in impoverished communities of color through the domestic and international war on drugs that you championed as first lady, senator and secretary of state. And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence and how you plan to reverse it?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, you know, I feel strongly, which is why I had this town hall today. And as, you know, the questions and the comments from people illustrated, there’s a lot of concern that we need to rethink and redo what we did in response to a different set of problems. And, you know, in life, in politics, in government—you name it—you’ve got to constantly be asking yourself, “Is this working? Is it not? And if it’s not, what do we do better?” And that’s what I’m trying to do now on drugs, on mass incarceration, on police behavior and criminal justice reform, because I do think that there was a different set of concerns back in the '80s and the early ’90s. And now I believe we have to look at the world as it is today and try to figure out what will work now. And that's what I’m trying to figure out. That’s what I intend to do as president.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Hillary Clinton speaking with Daunasia Yancey, the founder of Black Lives Matter Boston. Our guest is Joy-Ann Reid, who wrote Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide. Can you assess that conversation, the issues Daunasia was raising and what Hillary Clinton responded?

JOY-ANN REID: Yeah, it’s interesting, because I think you’re really seeing Hillary Clinton. We were having this sort of, I think, sort of bit false conversation about authenticity and campaigns and candidates. That is authentic Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is a policy wonk. Part of even the reason she ran into trouble in 2008 is that she was having this very academic discussion about the difference between what advocacy did in the Kingian sort of model and what it took for actual legislation, to make that possible. And she was essentially saying the same thing here.

AMY GOODMAN: Joy-Ann Reid, author of Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide. She’s a national correspondent for MSNBC.

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