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Wherein We Discuss "First Black Presidents"

What, exactly, is that supposed to mean?

By Petrarch  |  February 22, 2008

One of Bill Clinton's more amusing claims is that of being the "first black president."  This claim isn't original with him; he's not quite that arrogant.  Toni Morrison, a prestigious black writer (and winner of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes) made the comment in October of 2001 at the Congressional Black Caucus.

Even at that early date, there was some confusion over exactly what this was supposed to mean and its justification.  Clinton himself put forth the following explanation:

I think it's a function of the work I have done, not just as president, but my whole public life to try to bridge the racial divide and the fact that even when I was a little boy I had friends who were African-American.

Well!  It's probably fair to say that there have been a good number of presidents who had friends who were African-American.  George Bush Senior appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court - as marks of friendship go, that must rate pretty high.  Being from Georgia, it's safe to assume that Jimmy Carter had black friends.  If DNA studies are to be believed, Thomas Jefferson had at least one particularly close black companion - although that may be what Slick Willie is referring to himself.

Friendship with blacks seems like a relatively low bar for the title of "first black president", in fact almost a meaningless one.  Some of the attendees at the dinner felt the same way:

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said she has no idea what people mean when they talk about Clinton being "the first black president. "I don't know what that means. I don't know what that means," she commented as she walked away.

Clinton also cited the work he did - though he didn't get specific.  What work would that be, exactly?  Welfare reform, perhaps?  It is quite unlikely that the members of the Congressional Black Caucus would have considered that a major qualifier.

In any case, looking at the past history of presidents and their actions on behalf of black people, no president could possibly rank any higher than Abraham Lincoln.  Not only did he start a major war to free the American slaves -- something no one else has ever done -- but he was the first president to entertain blacks as honored guests in the White House.

If anyone should qualify as the "first black president" on the grounds of helping black Americans, it should be he.  Considering the tenor of the times, however, President Lincoln might not have appreciated the moniker as much as Bill Clinton does, so he can be excused.

It's interesting that Bill Clinton is not called the first African-American president.  He is the first "black" president, with no geographic qualifiers included.  That would imply that part of the qualifying measure is not just what's been done for American blacks, but for blacks elsewhere.

Here we find an interesting fact.  There is another president who has worked tirelessly to save the lives of millions of black Africans.  He has tripled aid to that continent; he has raised the profile of the health issues there, so as to encourage others to give more; and he has attempted to jawbone various warring parties into sitting down to talk over their differences, with some successes.

These great accomplishments, and even better intentions, have gone all but unnoticed in the United States.  But in Africa itself, the residents are very well aware, and grateful.

According to survey data, the majority of Africans have a favorable view of the United States.  In fact, citizens of some African countries have a more favorable view of the U.S. than Americans have.

Perhaps the best news of all, these efforts are not merely "alms to the poor," the largess of a wealthy man to some guttersnipe.  They are, rather, specifically intended to help Africans establish their own stable democracies; their own economies; and to better themselves through their own efforts, becoming equal members of the community of developed nations.

This goal would have been wholeheartedly welcomed by the early American black leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver, who were adamant about the need of blacks to work hard, study hard, and earn their success.  Dr. Carver advised his people to:

Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable. When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.

Carver also said:

There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation - veneer isn't worth anything.

If it is accepted as legitimate for the "first black president" to be a person who's not, in fact, black, then that honorific can only be granted on the basis of deeds or by a popular poll, not by the partisan decision of a handful of elites.  And based specifically on his actions, on his policies, on the heartfelt opinion of millions of black Africans, and even of celebrities, I have the distinct honor of presenting to you the first black President of the United States:

George W. Bush.