Shuckin' 'n' jivin' with Hillary Clinton

Posted: Jan 20, 2006 9:05 AM

Senator Hillary Clinton - she of the Rodham charm - has thrown it down.

She's unofficially, but inferentially, in the presidential race for 2008.

Not that anyone believed otherwise. But the beyond-all-doubt moment occurred this week when she evoked slavery and plantation life during a speech before a mostly black audience celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King's birthday.

How else to interpret that bit of race-baiting?

After playing center field the past couple of years, trying to sound mainstream on issues such as abortion and the war, she apparently felt the need to remind her base that they're still on the same page.

Clinton was speaking at a Harlem church Monday when she now-famously said that the U.S. House of Representatives "has been run like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about. It has been run in a way so that nobody with a contrary view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument, to be heard."

The latter part of her comment is substantively true, but she revealed more about herself than she did about Republicans with her plantation reference. She's a panderer, all right, but she won't be the first female black president.

Unlike her husband, who was tagged "America's first black president," Hillary Clinton ain't got "all that" - that soul thang that her husband has in, um, diamonds.

When Clinton said, "and you know what I'm talking about," what she was thinking, of course, was, "and you know wuddumsayin?" She wisely censored herself, but her slightly stuttered body English suggested juuuuuust a hint of ebonics. A little roll here, a little hand there. Oy vey, I've still got muscle cramps from cringing.

Watching Clinton's soul-sister moment was like watching a whiffed high-five, embarrassing as watching middle-aged white guys playing air guitar. Stop it.

No one's asked yet why Senator Clinton felt compelled to critique the House, which is not really her bailiwick. That said, it is largely true that House Republicans have marginalized House Democrats. That's a legitimate criticism, but political maneuvering among elected, paid officials doesn't quite equate with slavery.

Feeling left out of the power loop doesn't quite rise to the level of splitting up families and selling human beings.

But playing the plantation card is guaranteed to stir emotions, and emotionalism is the Clinton ace. Not to overplay the playing card metaphor. And sorry, but there's no separating the Bill from the Hill, no matter how much Democrats protest. The Clintons went to the White House in '92 as a two-fer, and they'll return to the White House as a two-fer. (If Hillary Clinton wins in '08, improbable as it is, stand by for the Vanity Fair cover of Bill in apron, baking Toll House cookies.)

Ever since Clinton's remark, there's been a whole lot of Googlin' going on as Democrats search for Republicans using the P-word. Aha! The Newt did it.

Indeed, former Rep. Newt Gingrich said in 1994 of Democrats, "I clearly fascinate them. I'm much more intense, much more persistent, much more willing to take risks to get it done. Since they think it is their job to run the plantation, it shocks them that I'm actually willing to lead the slave rebellion."

Noted. But Gingrich's poor choice of words doesn't mean that Clinton's are any less offensive (and Gingrich wasn't talking to an African-American audience). What's clear is that no one profits by invoking slavery and plantations. Like the Holocaust, the institution of slavery was too horrible ever to serve as metaphor or simile for anything else.

In an effort to deflect criticism of Clinton as panderer, an anonymous Democratic Senate aide reported in The Washington Post's political blog, "The Fix," that this wasn't the first time Clinton used the P-word. In a November 2004 appearance on CNN, she apparently said: "I mean they're running the House of Representatives like a fiefdom with Tom DeLay as, you know, in charge of the plantation."

The aide insisted that this was "proof positive this wasn't a remark to pander to anyone."

No, it isn't. It's just proof that Clinton has latched onto an unfortunate image.

If Clinton calculated her comment in advance, then she's got supremely bad instincts. If she spoke off the cuff, then her free-associative mind raises another kind of question: How does a white person gaze upon a church filled with African-American faces and come up with the plantation simile?

Up North, they might call that a Freudian slip; down South, they call it racist.

Know wuddumsayin?