When Political Opportunism Runs Red

We revisit a fascinating and disturbing time in US politics when Bill Clinton showed his true colours; champion of the left he was not. 

It was 1992 and William Jefferson Clinton, the Governor of Arkansas, a Democrat vying for his party’s presidential nomination, was looking down the barrel of political defeat. To keep his presidential dream alive, he knew he had to do something radical. For him, this meant changing the dominant narrative in the media and differentiating himself (positively) from his cohort. It had occurred to him early on that the answer to his prayers might lie within the emotionally-charged area of law and order, but first he needed to set the scene, find the opportune backdrop.

The New Hampshire Primary was approaching, and Bill was floundering: the consequence, at least partially, of an admission made by a woman named Gennifer Flowers. Her story was novel at the time, though now, with the wisdom of retrospection, we see her role within a grander narrative; one in which Bill systematically pursued a long line of women vulnerable to his power, satisfied his lust, and then disposed of them by any means necessary. While the charge of adultery was unsettling for many who felt the president ought to embody the supposed family values of the nation – and while an argument could be made that it speaks unfavourably of his integrity both personally and professionally – it was his tactics of self-preservation that were most disturbing. These women, with Monica Lewinsky the most recognisable figure, were the victims of well-organised defamation campaigns and alleged coercion by Clinton staffers. Monica was relentlessly branded a wacky stalker by the Clinton propaganda machine – a contention now entirely rubbished.

But in 1992, it was just Gennifer Flowers on his plate. Fortuitously for the president-in-waiting, her overtures to the media coincided with an opportunity for a publicity event so enticing that it stood a chance of diverting the national conversation away from his transgressions. To a politician as opportunistic as Bill, there could be no delay. At a pivotal moment in the campaign, he boarded a plane and returned to his home-state of Arkansas.

There, an African-American man named Ricky Ray Rector awaited him on death row. Ricky Ray had killed two men in the early 80s, one outside a night club, and the other – a cop – three days later. These were acts of senseless, despicable violence.

Ricky Ray apparently thought so himself, because he attempted unsuccessfully to blow his brains out immediately after the second incident. This suicide attempt and the resulting surgery to preserve his life left him effectively lobotomised. He possessed the mental capacity of a six or seven year old. Confined to death row, he barraged prison staff with juvenile questions about dogs, wailed at night over his fear of the dark, and insisted nonsensically that somebody was letting loose alligators and chickens in his cell.

To those around him, Ricky Ray showed very few signs of understanding that he had committed any crimes; and indeed, no real sense of grasping that the solution in store for him was one of chilling finality. In the courtroom of his last trial, after the judge had finished outlining his mode of dispatch, Ricky Ray simply replied, “Does this mean I will get a television in my cell now?”

On the eve of his execution, Ricky Ray caught one of Bill Clinton’s speeches on TV. Without a trace of irony, he remarked that he would maybe like to vote for Clinton in November. At the same time, Bill was en route to Conway, Arkansas, to personally supervise Ricky Ray’s state-sanctioned killing.

In the final week of Ricky Ray’s life, a number of legal experts and other figures of influence (including the Reverend Jesse Jackson) desperately tried to get in touch with Bill. They argued that Ricky Ray was so deficient, so much a shell of his former self, that he was no longer a pressing danger to society. Killing him would be akin to killing a child, they opined. There were repeated pleas for Bill to intercede and use his gubernatorial power to commute the sentence to life imprisonment instead. The Governor of Arkansas, however, remained indifferent and unmoved. His view was clearly consolidated and no ethical or moral objections would be entertained.

The next day, at 11:AM, under the watchful gaze of Bill Clinton (who, of course, had no legal requirement to be in attendance) the 42 year old African-American man, Ricky Ray Rector, was put to death by lethal injection.

Why did Bill Clinton take such care to ensure he was front-and-centre of the controversial killing, delivering defiant sound bites to any media outlet that would listen? In a word: opportunity. The optics, the proximity to the Democratic Primary, the looming audio tapes from Gennifer Flowers: there was much to be gained from seizing his moment of political redefinition. The racialised nature of the milieu that day would have resonated with a significant hunk of the Deep South (an integral constituency for Bill). There was enormous power in the visual; of the violent black thug – a totem of white insecurity – being made an example of by the State. For a campaign in crisis, it was just what the doctor ordered – and only made possible because of the racially fractured state of the nation.

The reward, for Bill, was palpable. He was suddenly the tough-on-crime politician – the hard man – rather than the leering slimeball. Major publications ran with more flattering photos of Bill, ones that made him look steely and ruthless, rather than smug or embarrassed. With many mainstream commentators, the Democrat’s fond embrace of the death penalty went down an utter treat. A former prosecutor Jay Jacobson commented: “If you can kill Rector, you can kill anybody.”

Ricky Ray’s death proved an irresistible opportunity for Bill to retool the nature of his coverage in preparation for his final electoral push. The embattled governor, glowing in the ruthlessness of his manoeuvre, was granted a much-needed reprieve from past sins. As president, he would go on to extend his strength again, and again, in various ways – not coincidentally during times when his carnal scandals were most under the microscope.

So, what is the lesson here? Be critical of those who participate in this shrewd form of tough-on-crime populism. Do not let our politicians claim that gang members, for instance, have fewer human rights than the rest of us. That sort of thinking is one step away from all-out tyranny. It might play well with certain constituents, but others, thankfully, recognise it for the tasteless, desperate ploy it is.

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