“I fish in many ponds,” Jim Clyburn likes to say. So many, in fact, that the South Carolina congressman seems less an angler than some great, enduring river through which the diverse elements of his House Democratic Caucus all swim.
A year ago, Clyburn became the first African-American raised in the segregated South to become majority whip, the third-highest position in the House. But what’s most unusual about this minister’s son is his ability to pull others along with him: blacks, rural whites, Hispanics and a faith community still distrustful of many Democrats.
At Clyburn’s instigation, white, Southern “Blue Dog” Democrats have begun to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus. Jews, Muslims and multiple Christian denominations were all part of a Democratic Faith Working Group meeting on poverty that he helped sponsor last week. And this is a man whose ties to the Latino community go back to the late ’60s, when Clyburn ran an anti-poverty commission that assisted Mexican migrant farm workers moving up the “Texas stream” through South Carolina.
These skills aren’t lost on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which knows it can’t win in November without the same constituencies.
“He’s the real deal,” says Valerie Jarrett, a top Obama confidante who has learned to rely on Clyburn. “He doesn’t mince words. You know exactly where you stand when you talk to him, and I’m grateful for that. He chooses his words carefully and is refreshingly confident.”
Obama, in a statement for this article, described Clyburn as a friend and “one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens.”
Many Democrats hope that Obama, who meets with the CBC in Washington on Thursday, will listen to Clyburn, too.
Young and biracial, Obama has as his great strength a persona and eloquence that excites voters, who often project their own hopes onto his candidacy. For those who remain unconvinced, Clyburn is a much-needed complement: a proven ally with a clearly defined core and ability to build that out to others.
If Obama is the politics of hope, Clyburn is the politics of faith — not a faith that imposes its beliefs but one that seeks to prove itself through action. Time and again, he will return to the biblical verse “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead” to explain his activism in politics. And faith is also Clyburn’s organizing tool as he tries to bring together a House Democratic Caucus whose own diversity is a preview of this year’s historic presidential campaign.
The diversity of the House is often lost in the national focus on Obama and his former rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). But the House is already run by a woman, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and enjoys a level of integration unheard of in Congress two decades ago.
“It is the most genuinely integrated institution in America,” says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. “Blacks are in charge of whites, and women are in charge of men; old in charge of young and young in charge of old.
“There are days on my committee when I feel like Red Auerbach coaching the Celtics. I’m the chairman of the committee, and there’s Maxine [Waters] and Mel [Watt], and I’m the only white guy, the short Jewish coach of a black team.”
For Obama — who cut his teeth in politics as a community organizer — there are lessons to be learned from how Clyburn moves from pond to pond.
“Very few people are able to reach out to all the caucuses,” says Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.).
“Jim Clyburn is respected by all of the Southern white Democrats. It’s a great relationship,” says Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a leader of the Blue Dogs.
Clyburn’s entry point is often his emphais on faith.
“I love to watch him,” says Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “I think he wonders, ‘Why are these people having such a difficult time talking about something that is quite natural?’ He sees faith as a core of who he is, and he sees this as a core of how he tells people who he is.”
As a minister’s son, Clyburn felt personally stung by the gap he saw between Democrats and the faith community while working on the ground in Ohio and Michigan in the last presidential campaign. “We just got our socks beat off,” he says. “I have an obligation to help my caucus to get through this thicket.”
He speaks of this year in almost biblical terms. The 2008 elections have seen a great “awakening” among American voters, he says. Obama’s candidacy, like the old hymn, is an “instrument of thy [God’s] peace” and comes after “40 years in the wilderness” for activists — such as himself — who lost the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to assassination in 1968.
As a student in South Carolina, Clyburn was arrested and jailed after a famous civil rights protest in Columbia in March 1961, just five months before Obama was born. Those three days in jail on an Army cot were a turning point for the future congressman, and Clyburn still recalls going back to his dorm and stripping off all his clothes before entering his room, never to wear them again.
His oldest daughter, Mignon, was born a year later, making her a contemporary of Obama. The 67-year-old Clyburn sees both as extensions of his own march through the civil rights movement.
“I was tremendously upset at the beginning of this campaign when people were saying of his candidacy that he was not a product of the civil rights movement,” Clyburn says. “I took that personally, because I don’t want anybody telling my daughter [that] because she’s not a product of the civil rights movement, ‘I can’t support you.’ ... It means, if that were the case, that I failed.
“Don’t you lay down the requirement that he is not entitled to pursue this because he didn’t march with us. Because if that’s going to be the requirement, then it’s never going to happen.”
Looking ahead, Clyburn said he was pleased by Obama’s recent Father’s Day remarks at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago. “I think the people have to see and feel it in him,” Clyburn says. “It is very important that that happens.”
Of the still-lingering fallout from comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, Clyburn admits his own father “would be very uncomfortable with Rev. Wright. ... He predated the so-called liberation theology that’s preached and practiced today.”
In his own life, Clyburn recognizes the frustration “you hear from Rev. Wright” and recalls that King’s own famous letter from the Birmingham, Ala., jail in 1963 was in response to “eight unenlightened clergymen who wanted him to leave Birmingham because he was a destructive force.”
But ultimately nothing about the controversy, he says, needs to impede Obama in defining himself and speaking of his own core faith and beliefs to voters.
“Wright is not associated with Obama’s faith. Wright is associated with Obama’s denomination,” Clyburn says. “There’s a big difference.”
“It is by our works that we demonstrate our faith,” Clyburn reminded an audience last week. “It is not enough — in the church I grew up in — to testify.”
And Clyburn still recalls his father’s reaction when he told him he would not go to the seminary: “‘Well, son,’ he said, ‘I suspect the word would much rather see a sermon than to hear one.’
“That’s what I want every member of this caucus to see.”