As Joe did, I spent the final two days before the South Carolina primary seeing the Clinton campaign up close–in my case, from the vantage point of Hillary Clinton’s press bus. The most enthusiastic response she received was at a community center run by Freedom Temple Ministries in Rock Hill. Over the years, I have covered political gatherings in scores and scores of black churches in the South, and there was something about this one that made it different from any I had ever encountered before.
This crowd was almost entirely white.
As Clinton’s supporters thronged the stage to shake her hand and get her autograph, I noticed a small group of African-Americans standing apart from them. One of them, it turned out, was Willie Lyles III, the executive director of the Freedom Center. He had made up his mind many months ago to vote for Barack Obama, he told me, and had already done so absentee. But he had long admired both Clintons, and was disturbed by the turn he believed Hillary Clinton’s campaign had taken.
“Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been very, very angered by not necessarily the words, but the tone that’s been coming out of the Clinton campaign, and I don’t think I’m the only African-American who feels that way,” Lyles said. He was especially critical of Bill Clinton, who he said had twisted Obama’s words and positions until they were unrecognizable. “He’s a former President, and it’s one thing for you to campaign for your spouse, but it’s a totally different thing for you to act like Tom DeLay against a Democratic candidate,” Lyles said. He also was stung, he said, by a comment by Hillary Clinton that had seemed to minimize the contributions of Martin Luther King, and by allusions that her campaign surrogates had made to Barack Obama’s admissions of past drug use.
“I know the code words. I’ve studied political science,” Lyles told me. “To me, those were code words for don’t trust the black man.”
Did the Clinton campaign play the race card? That would contradict everything that both Clintons have stood for in their decades of public life. Nor should they be blamed for every comment that is uttered by one of their supporters. And it is also true that the media, with its obsession on conflict, played a large role in fanning the emotions that surrounded this election. But Lyles was far from the only African-American voter that I talked to who felt that way. And I agree with Joe that it showed in the results on Saturday night.