GOP Still Whistlin' Dixie

New York Daily News
From: News and Views | Opinion |
Saturday, January 23, 1999

The text and the context of the impeachment trial of President Clinton are fairly obvious. The House Republican prosecutors presented their case for Clinton's removal, and his defense team argued for his political survival. But what came into stark relief this week was the subtext of this extraordinary proceeding.

There is a culture war, one with a racial tint, being fought on the floor of the U.S. Senate. To see the battle lines, one need look no further than the riveting presentation Wednesday by deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills.

Mills' presence in the trial – as the only woman, as the only African-American – was a contrast to the 13 prosecutors, aka the GOP White Men's Chorus. Mills focused her legal guns on the obstruction-of-justice article, but she nailed the opposition with her personal assault on the GOP claim that Clinton's actions undermine America's civil rights laws.

"Bill Clinton's grandfather owned a store," Mills said in soft tones. "His store catered primarily to African-Americans. Apparently, his grandfather was one of only four white people in town who would do business with African-Americans, and he taught his grandson that the African-Americans who came into his store were good people, and they worked hard, and they deserved a better deal in life."

The choice of Mills and that little story were no accident. It was clever political staging, designed as a compassionate counterpoint to remarks made by GOP prosecutor Lindsey Graham. In a curious aside drawn from his South Carolina boyhood, Graham blundered into a telling historical thicket: "My father and mother owned a restaurant . . . I can remember that if you were black, you came and you had to buy the beer and you had to go because you couldn't drink it there," Graham said. "My dad and mom were good people, but that is just the way it was."

Between Clinton or Graham, the choice is easy: America has a President who is popular for good reasons. That he is extraordinarily popular among black Americans is not incidental to Mills' point. Nor should it be incidental to whites. That blacks so support this President offers hope that America really can move toward one society, under God, indivisible.

Indeed, the across-the-board support for Clinton – a 76% approval rating in one poll – is nothing short of astounding. His flaws notwithstanding, his optimism and his genuine enthusiasm for solving social problems make the GOP scalp-hunters seem a pinched, sour bunch by comparison. The contrast is sharper given that two GOP Congressmen have had ties to the racist Council of Conservative Citizens.

That is why Mills told the Senate she is ". . . not worried about civil rights, because the President's record on civil rights, on women's rights, on all of our rights, is unimpeachable." Or, as a letter to another newspaper said, ". . . Bill Clinton seems to have a sin for each of us to identify with. We like people who tell us we are doing good. When was the last time any right-wing ideologue said we were doing good?"

The Republicans refuse to listen. At their party's peril. Not just because they are harming Bill Clinton, but because they are harming what he represents to millions of Americans. He is a symbol of them. Of us.

© Copyright 1999 Daily News, L.P.