Bill Clinton's bullish campaign for Barack Obama's re-election is a legacy moment for the 42nd president. Clinton was once admiringly hailed as the nation's first black president before he fell out of favor with many supporters of the black man who actually holds that honor.
Four years ago, Clinton's standing among blacks was hurt badly by competing charges of racism. The animosity was a result of an ugly sparring match between Obama and Clinton, who supported his wife in that contest for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
Some of the wounds of that campaign were healed when President Obama made Hillary Clinton his secretary of State. But the rift between Obama and his Democratic predecessor continued to smolder over the years. Until recently, the embers of this divide had a discernible glow.
That changed when Clinton took to the stage of the Democratic convention and heartily endorsed Obama. "I want Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States, and I proudly nominate him to be the standard bearer of the Democratic Party," Clinton proclaimed to rousing applause at the convention.
Since then, Clinton has been Obama's biggest champion. He has made a string of appearances in battleground states and attended fundraisers with the president. And in the wake of Obama's weak performance in the first debate, Clinton helped apply the brakes to his declining poll numbers by using a lot of folksy talk and common-sense explanations of complex issues to argue for Obama's re-election. A grateful Obama has jokingly said that he should name Clinton his "secretary of explaining stuff."
Boost to Clinton
But as much as what he's doing helps Obama, it gives an even bigger boost to Clinton's political legacy -- a record he desperately wants to cleanse of any suggestion of racist behavior. Of course, the back and forth between Clinton and Obama during the 2008 campaign is hard to erase. But history's judgment of those who have inhabited the Oval Office is often based on what is viewed as a defining moment in their life.
And so it is that Abraham Lincoln is remembered as "the great emancipator," and not the president who told Horace Greeley: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it." Theodore Roosevelt is best remembered as a trust buster, and not for his 1906 decision to dishonorably discharge 167 members of a black infantry unit because he wrongly believed that some of them were involved in a deadly shootout in Brownsville, Texas.
If Clinton plays a key role in delivering the winning margin of voters to Obama, an overwhelming number of blacks -- and many historians -- will see him as one of black America's greatest friends.
In 2001, when Clinton moved his post-White House office to Harlem, the social and cultural capital of black America, he claimed a special link to blacks. "I have always felt very much at home in the African-American community," Clinton told me then.
Obama's campaign now is banking on that affinity to help this nation's first black president win re-election.
DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.
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