Role over

Every Sunday my church has what they call a 'Children's Ministry,'" my friend Michelle is telling me. "It's a part of the service where the minister calls all the little children to the front of the church and he discusses a topic relevant to their age group. Like, sometimes he'll talk about the importance of family, or he might talk about sharing. Whatever it is, he'll relate it to Scripture but break it down into terms they can understand."

"Uh-huh," I say.

"So last February, for Black History Month, the minister is discussing the importance of role models. Eventually he's going to get around to the point that Jesus ought to be our ultimate role model. But meanwhile, he asks the children to name a famous African-American who can serve as a role model."

"Go on."

"So, one little kid names Rosa Parks. OK, fine. Another kid names Martin Luther King Jr. OK, of course. And some other kid names that famous athlete--what's his name? Oh yeah, Michael Jackson. I mean Michael Jordan. OK, I guess we can see that too. But then this little boy stands up, and in this real high-pitched voice he names Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton. As a famous African-American role model.

"There was, like, this heartbeat, and then the whole congregation exploded into laughter. I mean, poor little thing, but we couldn't help ourselves. It was just so precious and sooo real.

"What made it so funny," Michelle concludes, "is that we all could see how a child, sitting around the kitchen table listening to his parents talk, could get the impression that President Clinton is black."

If I'd been there, I don't know whether I would have laughed with the rest or groaned out loud--probably a bit of both. A little kid thinking Bill Clinton is black certainly is worth a chuckle or two. But the "role model" part makes me want to hang my head and sob.

This is the paradox of our 42nd president, particularly for African-Americans. He is what the old folks used to call a "blue-eyed soul brother." Usually you find blue-eyed soul brothers in jazz clubs or on athletic fields--those rare environments where whites who want to can work or play with blacks as compadres, as equals. Clinton seemed comfortable and easy around African-Americans. He seemed to seek out our company. He liked us, and we liked him.

But Clinton betrayed our trust. Yes, I'm talking about the Monica Lewinsky affair. He put us in a terrible position--of wanting to point him out to our children as a good president, a good friend, and a good role model, then wanting to jerk back and say, "Oops, never mind."

How did he fail us as a role model? Let me count the ways.

First of all, he lied to his wife and his daughter. I know many women who say they lost respect for Hillary Rodham Clinton when she didn't publicly put a frying pan upside her husband's head. Of course, doing so would have empowered the president's political enemies, and her own. Bill Clinton put her in that position.

Second, he took advantage of the naiveté of a much younger woman. Beneath the salacious bits, the special prosecutor's report painted a pathetic picture of a woman-child who dreamed that Clinton would leave his wife and live happily ever after with her. The fact that she was on her knees while dreaming those dreams makes the picture that much sadder. Bill Clinton put her in that position.

Third, he lied to us, the American people. When the scandal broke, he summoned all of his sincerity, looked us in our collective eyes, and declared he had not had sex with Lewinsky. Many of us believed him. Many of us assumed he was nothing more than a lying politician. And many more were torn between our healthy cynicism and the fact that he looked so darn sincere. Bill Clinton put us in that position.

Finally, he lied under oath, and for no better reason than that he didn't approve of the questions. An honorable man might have refused to answer questions he deemed inappropriate. He took the coward's way out. Bill Clinton put himself in that position.

African-Americans ended up dealing with our children a lot like Al Gore dealt with the electorate. Like the vice president, we tried to pretend there's a meaningful distinction between Clinton the man and Clinton the lowdown dirty dog. We tried to convince our children to admire him for some things but ignore the others. This requires a delicate, if not impossible, bit of legerdemain.

Blue-eyed or not, soul brother notwithstanding, the fact remains: Bill Clinton put us in that position.

See also:

Being Bill Clinton
Sweet little lies
It may be necessary to destroy the Democratic Party in order to save it
Brother Bill
The hustler
Queer as votes
Oh Danny boy
Ten years after, or a tale of two ex-presidents

Wiley Hall III writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]
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