Everyone wants the John Lewis endorsement, but his last one was rather tainted

The endorsement race in the Democrats’ 2020 primary battle has already begun, with candidates scurrying around trying to get influential figures signed on to add some heft to their bid. As The Hill reports this week, one person with a very full dance card is civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis. His leadership in the Congressional Black Caucus (in addition to his remarkable personal history) is seen as key to shoring up support with minority voters. And according to Lewis, the candidates have already come calling.

Democrats making bids for the White House are clamoring to lock down support from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), whose endorsement is among the most coveted on Capitol Hill.

The iconic civil rights leader, who switched his endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama in 2008, is holding off on backing a candidate as he considers the massive field of contenders.

In an interview with The Hill, Lewis said “several” 2020 contenders had swung by his office to seek his advice or an endorsement.

This is all perfectly understandable, as is Lewis’ hesitance to throw his weight behind anyone this early in the race. But as the Democrats scramble to catch the congressman’s attention, it’s worth keeping in mind that his 2016 endorsement generated some questions in terms of either the accuracy of his memory or his truthfulness. You didn’t hear much about it in the mainstream press, of course, because questioning anything to do with Lewis is seen as distasteful, but I wrote about it here back in February of 2016.

As I mentioned above, John Lewis is, without a doubt, a legendary icon in the civil rights movement. And he has devoted nearly all of his adult life to public service, for which he deserves the nation’s gratitude. He is also, however, a human being, and a politician to boot. That means he comes with the same fallibility and potential flaws as the rest of us. That may have been on display when he announced his endorsement of Hillary Clinton on the Capitol steps alongside many members of the CBC that year. All of the details are in the article I linked above, but here are the basic highlights.

Keep in mind that when Lewis was endorsing Clinton, he got in a bit of a shot at Bernie Sanders in terms of his history on civil rights activism. “To be very frank, I never saw [Bernie Sanders], I never met him,” Lewis said. Then he went on to make the following claim about Hillary Clinton and her husband. “I chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963-1966. I was involved in sit-ins, Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the March from Selma to Montgomery … but I met Hillary Clinton, I met President Clinton.”

That’s a pretty powerful endorsement. But is it true? To learn the details we can look to a source that is hardly any sort of right-wing attack dog. We can read the work of Janis F. Kearney, who served as the Presidential Diarist to President Bill Clinton from 1995 – 2001. She published a book in 2006 titled Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton: from Hope to Harlem. It tells the stories of Black Americans from the south during the civil rights era and how their experiences shaped Bill Clinton’s views on civil rights, including many personal stories from black leaders who knew him.

There’s one entire chapter dedicated to John Lewis and it’s composed almost entirely of direct quotes from him. Let’s see what he had to say about the Clintons back then. (Emphasis added)

The first time I heard of Bill Clinton was in the early ’70s. I was living in Georgia, working for the Southern Poverty Law organization, when someone told me about this young, emerging leader in Arkansas who served as attorney general, then later became governor…

I think I paid more attention to him at the 1988 Democratic Convention, when he was asked to introduce the presidential candidate and took up far more time than was allotted to him. After he became involved with the Democratic Leadership Council, I would run into him from time to time. But it was one of his aides, Rodney Slater, who actually introduced us in 1991 and asked me if I would support his presidency.

So Lewis told Clinton’s diarist that he’d first “heard of him” in the early seventies. Then he noticed him more in 1988. And at no time does he even mention Hillary in all of his. Then they finally get to meet in person… in 1991.

Rodney gets the credit for convincing me that Bill Clinton was “the man,” when he told me all he had done in Arkansas to help change the layout of that state. In the summer of 1991, I hosted a breakfast for him in the Rayburn building. Congressmen Mike Espy and Bill Jefferson were there. The three of us were trying to convince the Democratic Black Caucus to endorse Clinton. Most Northern members didn’t know him and wasn’t very interested

What was so striking about Bill Clinton was that here was a governor and a presidential candidate, and he actually made you feel as if he knew he needed you. He was warm, engaging, and comfortable with the African American audience. We literally began to feel he was one of us. The people there were amazed to see this white Southerner so comfortable around blacks.

So he never met the Clintons until 1991. And even then, he and many members of the CBC were “amazed” to see him being “so comfortable around blacks.” If he’d known Hillary Clinton long before, how would he have not known her far more famous husband? Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has significant evidence of all the college sit-ins and protests for civil rights he participated in as a 1960s hippie in Chicago. But Lewis’ endorsement tells a very different tale.

In any event, none of this detracts from Lewis’ own place in the history of the civil rights movement and I’m sure the candidates will continue to chase after his endorsement. All I’m saying is, when he eventually does endorse somebody, make sure you double check all the details.