Some Arkansas Democrats — Clintonians, of course — were trying to ease the pain of retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark.
The proud general was getting beaten up wholly unjustly for having dared to speak a transparent truth that being taken hostage and tortured in Vietnam does not qualify one to be president.
These folks told the general to shake it off. After all, they said, it was just the despicable modern American press. And if the despicable modern American press could make Bill Clinton out to be a racist, then there was no hope for fairness, reason and accuracy for anybody anymore.
This is how bitter Clinton and his people remain about the Democratic presidential primary. It helps establish context for Clinton’s interview last week with ABC News.
Asked if Barack Obama was ready to be president, Clinton could have done the honorably partisan if hollow thing and said, "Of course." But what he said — in pointed volumes — was that you could argue that no one was ready.
Asked if he’d take any of his words back during his wife’s agonizingly close defeat to Obama, he said that, sure, anyone would. But then he said, "I am not a racist."
Richard Nixon said he was not a crook, but he was. Clinton says he is not a racist, and, of course, he absolutely is not.
I would venture to say that the man hasn’t a racist instinct. I would venture to say that his most honorable things are his good heart and fine record on race.
An extemporaneous speech he made in Memphis in 1993 about how Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t live and die so that young black males could kill each other, or so that young black women could have children out of wedlock, was the best political speech on race in America — until, that is, Obama spoke a few weeks ago on the pervasive challenges of skin color as he tried to put Jeremiah Wright behind him.
Clinton is simply guilty of being a consummate politician, possessed of all instincts thereof. His real problem is the one just alluded to: Obama is one-upping him and threatening to render his eight presidential years an era of unsustained dot-com growth, sex and irrelevance.
What Clinton did in South Carolina in March, which was the same thing he’d done in Chicago in 1992 when speaking to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, was engage in tactics of race politics, not racism.
He went to Jackson’s group 16 years ago to attack a black rapper’s lyrics. The point was to use the African-American audience as a prop for a message to white voters. The message was that he was a different kind of Democrat, one not cowed by the standard Democratic constituencies.
So on that March day of the South Carolina primary, he knew his wife was getting creamed and he knew it was because the black vote, once nearly all his, had gone overwhelmingly to Obama.
So he spoke a calculated fact, if not a full truth, which was that Jesse Jackson had won big in South Carolina, too.
It was not entirely a matter of truth because Jackson had won a caucus, not a primary, and Obama, unlike Jackson, had just won a white majority in Iowa and nearly another in New Hampshire.
Obama had been emerging as a transcendent, post-race figure. Clinton was seeking to put Obama in a limited Jacksonian compartment. It almost worked.
None of this makes Clinton a racist. It makes him a politician.
Fate put him on the wrong side of the political-racial dynamic of 2008. He got Barack-ed. Obviously, it’s about to eat him alive.
John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.