It’s hard to say why former President Bill Clinton went so far off-script to defend his 1994 anticrime law against Black Lives Matter hecklers at a Philadelphia rally for his wife’s presidential campaign.
Did he forget that he, too, renounced his own law, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, last July at the NAACP convention in the same City of Brotherly Love?
“I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” he told the NAACP about the increased incarceration that President Barack Obama has been trying to undo, “and I want to admit it.”
And last May in a CNN interview, he admitted: “We have too many people in prison. And we wound up spending – putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out that they could live productive lives.”
Never miss a local story.
While he blamed the law’s harshest provisions on lawmakers who would not have voted for it otherwise, Clinton admitted, “I wanted to pass the bill and so I did go along with it.”
As his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, seeks his old job, she, too, has criticized the 1994 law and expressed regret for her own unfortunate use of the term “super-predator” in those days to describe law-breaking youths.
She’s not alone in regretting that. Even John J. DiIulio, Jr., the University of Pennsylvania sociologist credited – or blamed – with inventing the term, told me in a 1998 interview that he regretted coming up with the word. He had hoped to win support in Congress for alternatives to draconian lock-'em-up legislation, but, as he put it, his words have been “more quoted than heeded” on Capitol Hill.
Yet when protesters in Philadelphia chanted and held up signs to denounce his legacy of crime and welfare legislation in the White House, Bubba blew his stack.
Shouting over, around and the heckling, Clinton recalled the brighter side of his decade: record-low murder rates, a 46-year low in crime rates. He also recalled positive aspects to the crime bill: a ban on assault weapons, funding for after-school activities and funds for 110,000 more police officers on the streets.
Even Hillary Clinton’s rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, voted for the crime bill to get that assault weapons ban, his campaign said in a statement.
But Bill Clinton even seemed to defend the term “super-predators,” chastising the Black Lives Matter hecklers with, “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter.”
Why the big shift in tone? Maybe the former president had grown weary in the moment of having to defend his record, even when it means glossing over his own apologies. As one who recalls the Clinton years well, this is hardly the first time I have seen Bubba get quite belligerent when he is challenged over something he gets passionate about.
But he needs to do more than argue. Much has been said about the generation gap that has caused younger women to prefer Sanders over Hillary Clinton. As the parent of a politically savvy African-American twentysomething, I have seen the same gap open up between black millennials and their elders.
Too young to remember the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, today’s youths are more familiar with mass incarceration, violent crime surges, viral videos of police brutality and losses in many black households of economic gains they made in the Clinton years.
New Twitter-age movements like Black Lives Matter are fueled by such experts as Michelle Alexander, 48, and her best-seller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
In an essay published in The Nation before South Carolina’s primary, titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” Alexander harshly questioned the “devotion” of black voters to the Clintons.
“Did they take extreme political risks to defend the rights of African-Americans?” she wrote. “Did they courageously stand up to right-wing demagoguery about black communities…?” No, she wrote, “Quite the opposite.” Ouch.
Instead of blowing his stack, today’s leading candidate to be the first “First Dude” needs to help his wife reach out to those young folks. Sanders makes it look easy.
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.