Hillary Rodham Clinton strongly defended her husband's record on civil rights Saturday at a forum in which she acknowledged "painful moments" in a presidential contest pitting the first woman candidate against a pioneering black contender.
At the annual State of the Black Union conference hosted by PBS' Tavis Smiley, Clinton pushed back hard on the notion that Bill Clinton had inflamed racial tensions while campaigning for her in the run-up to South Carolina's primary last month.
The former president — once so popular among black voters he was dubbed the first black president by novelist Toni Morrison — harshly criticized Barack Obama in South Carolina, producing a backlash among blacks that helped lead to his wife's crushing defeat there.
After that primary, the former president angered many by suggesting Obama had won the state simply because he was a black candidate campaigning in a state with a large number of black voters. Since then, Clinton has badly lost the black vote to Obama in every primary or caucus — including Louisiana's earlier this month.
Obama won Louisiana's primary by a margin of 57 percent to 36 percent — one of 11 straight victories over Clinton since Super Tuesday Feb. 5.
They ‘know his heart’
Questioned by Smiley about her husband's efforts in South Carolina, the former first lady said many of the 5,000 people attending Saturday's conference were personally acquainted with the former president and that they "know his heart."
She noted that the former president has made racial reconciliation a key part of his public life. Whether Clinton would apologize on behalf of America for slavery was a question that bubbled throughout a 1998 trip to Africa. He did not, but rather discussed — in a carefully calibrated approach — the wounds that slavery caused. Clinton did formally apologize to the Tuskegee, Ala., men left untreated for syphilis in a federal study exposed 25 years earlier.
"Most of my African-American friends and advisers don't believe that we should get into what was essentially a press story about whether there should be an apology for slavery in America," he said in a magazine interview a few days before the trip. "They think that that's what the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment was; they think that's what the civil rights legislation was, and they think we need to be looking toward the future."
Speaking broadly of Bill Clinton on matters of race, she said: "My husband mended, so as to avoid ending, affirmative action. My husband had in his White House, Cabinet, and his administration, many of you I see here. We know that when he was president, we had a rising tide and we lifted more people out of poverty than at any time in America's recent history."
But, she added, "If anyone was offended by anything that was said — whether it was meant or not, misinterpreted or not — obviously I regret that."
‘Uncharted territory’ as a party
In her remarks, Clinton acknowledged the historic nature of her campaign against Obama and praised "all who struggled, sacrificed and risked everything so Senator Obama and I could be where we are today." But she said the campaign had also forced difficult choices for many voters.
"This campaign has taken all of us into uncharted territory as a party, as a nation, as individuals. And yes, I think we can be both proud and grateful that we are breaking barriers and changing history for the good," Clinton said. "But there have been some painful moments, too."
She added, "Those of us who fought together for decades to right wrongs and break barriers cannot let differences in our choice of who should be elected undermine our fundamental unity to change the course of this country."
Clinton was the only presidential candidate of either party to accept Smiley's invitation to speak at the event. Obama declined, saying he needed to campaign through Ohio and Texas before both states' primaries March 4. Clinton has pinned the future of her campaign on winning Ohio and Texas, but stepped off the campaign trail after morning events in Ohio to attend the conference.