Inside Bright Hope Baptist Church, the luminaries of Philadelphia’s black political world gathered for the funeral of former Rep. William H. Gray III in July. Dozens of politicians – city, state and federal – packed the pews as former President Bill Clinton offered a stirring eulogy, quoting Scripture and proudly telling the crowd that he had once been described as "the only white man in America who knew all the verses to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’"
But it was the presence and behavior of Hillary Rodham Clinton that most intrigued former Gov. Edward G. Rendell: During a quiet moment, Hillary Clinton leaned over to the governor and pressed him for details about the backgrounds, and the influence, of the assembled black leaders.
Since Hillary Clinton left the secretary of state post in February, she and her husband have sought to soothe and strengthen their relationship with African-Americans, the constituency that was most scarred during her first bid for the presidency. Five years after remarks by Bill Clinton about Barack Obama deeply strained the Clintons’ bond with African-Americans, the former first family is setting out to ensure that there is no replay of such trouble in 2016.
Hillary Clinton used two of her most high-profile speeches, including one before a black sorority convention, to address minority voting rights – an explosive issue among African-Americans since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in June. A month after Gray’s funeral, Hillary Clinton and her husband both asked to speak at the service for Bill Lynch, a black political strategist who is credited with the election of David N. Dinkins as mayor of New York, and stayed for well over two hours in a crowd full of well-connected mourners. And there have been constant personal gestures, especially by the former president.
"I think that this is an effort to repair whatever damage they felt may have been done in ’08," said the Rev. Al Sharpton. The Clintons "know that there are some who have lingering questions, if not antipathy, towards them," Sharpton said.
This task has taken on new urgency given the Democratic Party’s push to the left, away from the centrist politics with which the Clintons are identified. Strong support from black voters could serve as a bulwark for Hillary Clinton against a liberal primary challenge should she decide to run for president in 2016. It would be difficult for a progressive candidate, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to rise if the former first lady takes back the black voters she lost to Obama and retains the blue-collar white voters who flocked to her.
Her appearance before the sisters of Delta Sigma Theta in July, which she opened by offering condolences to the family of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was killed in Florida last year, and her voting rights address to the American Bar Association in August drew significant attention among black leaders.
"That speech that she gave regarding voting suppression was very, very significant and meaningful," said Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking African-American in Congress. Clyburn, who clashed sharply with Bill Clinton in 2008, said Hillary Clinton was "now in a very good place with the African-American community."
Tavis Smiley, a black commentator, argued that this was because "they have now learned the important lesson that there’s a distinction between a coronation and an election."
The Clintons appear to be taking nothing for granted. Bill Clinton did not just attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on the National Mall in August, but also showed up at Arlington Cemetery in June to honor Medgar Evers on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. In May, Bill Clinton was the commencement speaker at Howard University in Washington, posing for pictures with all who asked and sitting onstage next to one of the school’s best-known graduates, L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor from Virginia, a longtime friend and rival of Bill Clinton’s.
In private, Bill Clinton is frequently in touch with black leaders. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member on the House panel on government oversight, got a handwritten note from the former president over the summer commending him on his leadership on the committee.
"He has made an effort to reach out over and over again through the years," Cummings said.
The congressman recalled Bill Clinton’s visits to his church in Baltimore and a phone call he got from the former president inquiring about the health of his mother, whose name Clinton recalled.
Such personal touches, for which the Clintons are famous, have never been more important as Hillary Clinton considers a second presidential bid.
Bill Clinton has a rich, if occasionally fraught, history with African-Americans. He was a New South governor and a progressive on race who would eventually be called "the first black president" by the author Toni Morrison. But he infuriated blacks in 2008 when, after Obama won a big South Carolina primary victory, he seemed to dismiss the achievement by reminding the press that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state twice and calling Obama’s anti-war position "the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen."
Many African-Americans took Bill Clinton’s fairy tale comment to mean that Obama’s candidacy itself was a hopeless fantasy.
"It did get a little strained at times," Cummings acknowledged. "I will never forget when President Clinton made that comment about the fairy tale. That was a painful moment for a lot of African-Americans, because we didn’t see it as a fairy tale."
He added, however, that he believed most African-Americans had moved on from their hurt, in no small part because of Hillary Clinton’s willingness to join Obama’s administration and her loyalty therein. Indeed, her most important implicit endorsement among blacks may come from Obama himself.
His joint "60 Minutes" interview with Hillary Clinton this year helped ease lingering doubts about tensions between the former rivals. And Obama’s silence in recent months as some of his former aides have aligned themselves with Hillary Clinton suggests that he will not try to help clear the way for Vice President Joe Biden if he decides to run.
For other black leaders, Bill Clinton’s showstopping speech at last year’s Democratic convention was equally important.
"The defining moment for me was both when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state and Bill Clinton’s tremendous speech on behalf of President Obama," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who backed Obama in 2008. "Those both occurred when a lot of people in the community were paying close attention."
The renewed connection between the Clintons and African-Americans was on display as Bill Clinton campaigned for his close friend Terry McAuliffe in the closing weeks of the recent campaign for governor of Virginia. At a high school in a black neighborhood in Richmond, the former president received a booming ovation, punctuated by church-style shouts of "Yes!" and "All right!"
"I hope all the people of other religions in the audience will forgive me, but on this Sunday, in the parlance of my native state and my culture, I’m fully aware that I am just preaching to the saved," Bill Clinton said to cheers and applause.
He then praised Wilder, who endorsed Obama in the 2008 race and was also at the McAuliffe campaign event, beaming.
In an interview at the rally, Wilder recalled a long chat he had with Bill Clinton in May. While Clinton professed not to know his wife’s intentions, Wilder felt otherwise: "I’d be less than honest if I didn’t tell you I came away convinced that there’s no question about her running."
Of the tensions of 2008, the former governor said all was forgiven: "I don’t think anybody is looking back. If Hillary runs for the nomination, she gets it. Period."
Amy Chozick and Jonathan Martin, New York Times