A master class on the art of politics At 76, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina takes the long view
When U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of the most senior people in Congress, steps to the podium Thursday night, the final night of the Democratic National Convention, and surely one of the final conventions of his storied career, he will urge Americans to have empathy for one another. To try to walk in each other’s shoes.
“I have two books at my bedside,” said Clyburn, 76. “One is the Bible and the other is [David] McCullough’s book on Truman. I use both as a reference,” when he’s trying to put things in context. He refers to Luke 10:25-37: “You learn from the story of the Good Samaritan that being one’s neighbor is not predicated upon church membership or status in life or even ethnicity, because Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. When the Samaritan stopped to help the Jew on the side of the road, he didn’t ask him, ‘Wait a minute, you’re of a different background. You’re of a different religion. I can’t help you.’ No, he did what he could to help.”
After speaking to the Louisiana delegation at a downtown Philadelphia hotel Wednesday, the third-highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, a man of whom President Barack Obama said, “One of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens,” took some time to talk about his career.
The Sumter native has been married to wife Emily for 55 years and has three daughters, including Commissioner Mignon Clyburn of the Federal Communications Commission. He was a youth president of his local NAACP chapter when he was 12. He passed out campaign literature for presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower when many black families were Republican, he said. He first went to Congress in 1993.
Such political longevity sets him apart.
That, and his voice.
At the Kentucky delegation breakfast on Monday, for instance, someone urged him to speak up since there was no microphone. “Oh, I don’t think anybody will have trouble hearing me,” he said, his deep, resonant foghorn carrying over the din.
Odds are he will still be in the minority in Congress after the November elections, though he’s hopeful Democrats can reclaim both the House and the Senate. But even if they don’t, he will do the work he’s always done. For instance, in 2009, he got his 10/20/30 formula for addressing underserved communities into three sections of the federal stimulus program. The formula requires that 10 percent of appropriations must go to communities where 20 percent or more people have lived at or below the poverty line for 30 years.
He hasn’t stopped lobbying to expand it despite the Republican majority in Congress. “When I left Washington last week, they had already found 17 places in the appropriations bill where they’re going to apply that formula,” Clyburn said. “So I’m in a severe minority right now, but that’s in their budget. Just because I’m not in the majority doesn’t mean I cannot advocate for these programs.”
It’s a lesson, he says, not to get too attached to any one administration, or refuse to work with any party. Experience has taught him that in politics, the improbable happens all the time.
He’s also learned that, often, you can’t lead with race. He appealed to Republicans by saying, “I don’t care how much you invest in Kentucky and West Virginia,” as long as other underserved communities get their share.
Clyburn endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 South Carolina presidential primary, unlike in 2008, when he stayed neutral in the primary battle between Clinton and Obama. In his 2014 memoir, Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black, he wrote that former President Bill Clinton called to cuss him out at 2:15 in morning after his wife lost the state primary. Weeks later, after he had been harshly criticized for remarks suggesting that Obama’s success in the state was largely due to race, he called to apologize.
Clyburn has spoken with the former president twice in this campaign. “I talked to him before I did the endorsement, then he called me after I did the endorsement and thanked me,” Clyburn said.
In this campaign, some have knocked Hillary Clinton for a charisma gap. Clyburn called the criticism wrongheaded. Charisma “is good to have, no question about that. But it seems to me that we have to all take into account what the deal is.”
And what is the deal, Mr. Congressman? “I don’t care how much style you’ve got, if you don’t have the right kind of substance, it’s going to be a problem,” he said. “I agree, Mrs. Clinton does not have the pizzazz of a Barack Obama, but that’s not the way we ought to be defining how we conduct ourselves going forward. We need to look at the platform put forward by either party.”
And by the way, Clinton told last week’s NAACP convention that she’s a believer in Clyburn’s 10/20/30 formula, he said. “So I’m going to hold her to that.”
Clyburn says all elections are important, but calls this one the most “critical to the future of this county than any in my lifetime.” He urges voters to listen to what Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says: “This is wrong and I’m the only one that can change it. That’s what this fool is saying,” Clyburn said. “Not the Republicans can do it. I can do it. If that ain’t the talk of a dictator, then somebody tell me what is.”
It’s important for older black politicians like himself to pass down the lessons of how to listen with discernment, craft legislation and understand political contours, he said. The Congressional Black Caucus, which he once chaired, has a leadership institute that offers fellowships, internships and scholarships to encourage public service careers. And the South Carolina Democratic Party sponsors Clyburn Political Fellows to encourage young people around the state to get involved. Just like Clyburn did as a young man, passing out campaign literature for Ike Eisenhower all those years ago.
“I want young people to learn politics by doing politics,” Clyburn said. You can go to college and major in political science, but “the practice of politics is an art, it’s not a science … You don’t learn art by reading about it. Playing music is an art, but you learn to play music by playing music. You learn to paint by painting. You learn to do sculpture by sculpturing,” he said, laughing.
“If all you’re going to do is study, you aren’t going to learn politics,” Clyburn said. And as much as anyone in America, he should know.
With that, one of the highest-ranking blacks in congressional history, a political artist, is on to his next appointment.