It is not an exaggeration to say that I grew up in squalor. I lived in a cockroach-infested home that I shared with the stray dogs from the neighborhood, dogs who treated my home like a litter box. During my high school years, the toilet did not work. The area drug addicts camped out in our living room many nights and smoked meth, crack, and marijuana. It was not uncommon to wake up with strange men in our yard. My father, who believed in doomsday predictions of a mystic named Ramtha, hoarded so many canned goods in our attic that the ceiling eventually collapsed (most of the non-perishable food, sadly, had perished).
This is the environment in which I was raised: A glorified cardboard box inhabited by derelicts. More factors than I can list contributed to my ability to escape. Luck was one. The village of people — friends, parents, teachers — who took an interest in me was another.
And then there was a man named Bill Clinton.
Progressive America is not as enamored with Bill Clinton as it once was. The legacy of the triangulating policies that made it possible for Clinton to break the GOP stronghold and move into the White House — which had been occupied primarily by Republicans since LBJ — have not held up well. His 1994 crime bill is responsible for much of today’s racist mass incarceration. The welfare reform passed under Clinton has also contributed to our eroding safety net, although the environment in which I grew up certainly factored into my support of it. I lived in a redneck neighborhood where welfare fraud and abuse was as rampant as child abuse. When your home is occupied on most nights by impoverished drug addicts who used those welfare checks to get high, it’s more difficult to feel sympathy.
Policies aside, when Bill Clinton came along, as an impoverished 17-year-old, there was nothing else like him. Here was a guy who grew up 85 miles away, in a poor family with an alcoholic, gambling-addicted, abusive step-father who had married, divorced, and remarried his mother. He also had a fuck-up, drug-addict for a brother. That’s the kind of bullshit that went on in my family, and this Bill Clinton guy not only made it out, he was the Governor of our state, running for the motherfucking Presidency.
You see this woman right here?
Don’t let the fact that she’s hugging the POTUS fool you. Women who look like Virginia Kelley Clinton are a dime a dozen in Arkansas. They chain-smoke. They eat JELL-O cakes, they watch soap operas, and they probably spend more than a few Sundays at the horse-racing track (especially in Hot Springs, where Clinton grew up). They’re sweet and well-intentioned, but most do not raise Presidents.
At 17, I looked up to Bill Clinton and I thought, “If a guy nicknamed Bubba can do it, I can do it, too!” I decided I’d go to college — a previously unfathomable idea in my family — just like Bill Clinton did. I went to Boys State, just like Bill Clinton did. I got involved in politics. I worked for Clinton’s campaign. I was going to major in political science and go to law school, just like Bill Clinton did. If he could do it, I could do it.
On November 3rd, 1992, my best friend John James and I drove to Little Rock to see Bill Clinton give a speech after being elected the 42nd President of these United States, and when I looked up on that stage, I didn’t see a guy who came from generations of money, like a Kennedy or a Bush, and I didn’t see a guy with a fancy education (although, he did have one). I saw a poor kid from Arkansas nicknamed Bubba who had just become the leader of the free world. I saw myself in Bill Clinton.
That’s identity politics. That’s all it is. It’s being able to identify with our leaders because they are of the same race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic background. When Barack Obama gave that keynote address in 2004 and won the Presidency in 2008, there were probably thousands of African-American 17-year-olds who changed their lives because Obama gave them the confidence and the hope that they could do so. When Hillary gave that glass ceiling speech in 2008, how many 17-year-old women decided to change their lives because Hillary Clinton had provided a roadmap? And when Michelle Obama gave that speech last night, holy shit, I could actually feel the epiphanies of an entire nation of 17-year-old women, African-Americans, and Chicagoans who saw themselves in her. There’s a teenage black girl in Chicago living in squalor right now who will run the world someday because she saw that speech last night, because she saw herself in Michelle Obama.
That’s identity politics. That’s all it is. There’s nothing dangerous or divisive about it. It’s about celebrating that in others that we see in ourselves. It’s about each of us rooting for our own home team, not to the detriment, but to the benefit of the entire sport, because the more teams who have a better shot at winning, the better, the stronger the league will be. Indeed, the better, stronger United States is the one in which anyone — no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender — can one day stand on the stage in front of millions of people and inspire those at home to follow in their footsteps, because there are finally footsteps for them to follow.