He's a smart fellow, and so Barack Obama surely knew what was in store for him if he ever looked like taking the Democratic nomination away from Hillary Clinton. The Clintons' relationship with African Americans has always been starkly instrumental. When he was in trouble with white voters in New Hampshire in 1992, Gov. Bill sprinted back to Little Rock to preside over the execution of a mentally retarded black man. To ensure her husband's victory in his reelection race in 1996, Hillary insisted Bill chop poor mothers &

overwhelmingly black &

off the welfare rolls. Many blacks loved Bill, "the first black president," nonetheless, and in the impeachment crisis over Monica Lewinsky, they were his last true friends, as Bill recognized when he summoned Rev. Jesse Jackson into the White House to help him pray for forgiveness and redemption.




Obama learned too from Jackson's fate in 1988 when the Chicago preacher took Iowa by storm and surged on unprecedented victories in a slew of spring primaries. The press ignored the hefty white votes for Jackson, and within weeks, Jackson had been neutralized by the opportune disclosure (by a black Washington Post reporter) of a private conversation in which Jackson had deprecated New York as "Hymietown." He spent the rest of the year alternately apologizing and complaining that his function was to "bale up" black votes for the white Democratic ticket.




So Obama tried to inoculate himself by sticking limpet-like in his early Senate days to Sen. Joe Lieberman, Israel's most rabid advocate in Congress. Any black community organizer in Chicago is no stranger to the downside of the American dream, but Obama purged his rhetoric of populism or outrage and has levitated on soft cushions of hot air about "change," thus emulating Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. FDR talked also in vague terms about change and told jobless and starving Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. He was elected, and the outgoing Congress rewarded him by repealing prohibition. Americans duly banished fear and welcomed hope by getting legally drunk.




Obama led a charmed life, and then he won Iowa. Already in New Hampshire, Hillary's campaign manager, Billy Shaheen, had warmed up voters by reminding them Obama was unelectable because of his past "drug use" as a pot-smoker and a cokehead. Between the tears that established her femininity, Hillary snarled that whereas the black Martin Luther King was a merchant of dreams, it took a white president, Lyndon Johnson, to get the civil rights bill through Congress.




Andrew Cuomo, a prominent New York Democrat, said he was tired of Obama's "shuck and jive."




Then came the announcement earlier this week of a truce on the growing racial acrimony. This was instantly broken as Bob Johnson, America's first black billionaire and a big Hillary supporter, stood next to Hillary on a campaign platform in South Carolina and said the Clintons had been fighting for black justice while young Obama was still "doing something in the neighborhood" &

i.e. doing drugs behind the schoolyard fence.




Racial decorum is paper-thin in America, and already the gloves are halfway off. Obama's home preacher and spiritual counselor, Jeremiah Wright, told a huge and applauding congregation in his church in Chicago that "some argue that blacks should vote for Clinton because her husband was good to us. That's not true! He did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky." The Rocky Mountain News reports that at a stockmen's gathering in Colorado, a speaker joked that if Obama becomes president, it won't be called the White House any more.




Now the two are locked in a desperate struggle in South Carolina, scheduled for Jan. 26. This is called the black primary since it's the contest most likely, on the Democratic side, to be swayed by the large black vote. Clinton campaign money has been liberally distributed to the all-important black churches whose preachers will be rallying the vote. The Clintons' instinct is to trash Obama, betting that whatever offense they cause to blacks will abate by the time Hillary has to face a Republican in the fall. Obama has the same problem in reverse. Any angry black talk may help him in the short term in South Carolina but would explode the vital message that he is safely "above" the racial divide.




It won't be long before the Clinton campaign circulates some of Rev. Wright's sermons linking Zionism with racism and brandishes the photo of Mr. and Mrs. Barack Obama having lunch with the late Edward Said, America's best-known Palestinian. Already they're trying to link Wright's church to Louis Farrakhan. Jackson can predict accurately to Obama what will happen next, and those speeches praising Sen. Joseph Lieberman won't help. No, a Clinton-Obama ticket is not likely. The Clintons take their fights bitterly, and while it may be true that America is ready for a woman president, the notion that it would be similarly receptive to a black president is truly open to challenge.




Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through . To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at .