OPINION | Jim Clyburn saves the Democrats

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NO one has seen anything like it. It will live in our political lore.

There’ll be some bright 32-year-old kid running a campaign in 2056 and his guy will be down three in a row and the elders will take him to the Marriott bar and tell him, “Ya gotta get out, handwriting’s on the wall,” and he’ll nod, slump-shouldered. Then he’ll get this steely look, this young-wild-James-Carville look, and he’ll say, “Joe Biden was over in ’20. Nothing is written.”

There were many elements to what happened. Democrats love to say they’re not members of any organized political party, they’re Democrats; they love to say Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line. That’s their self conception and their story line and it’s mostly malarkey, as someone would say. You don’t get these staggered endorsements and coordinated statements without organization, power centers and money lines.

But this is about the human part, the historic part, the speech Rep. Jim Clyburn gave that saved Mr. Biden. It was Wednesday morning. Feb. 26, in the College Center at Trident Technical College on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston, S.C. Mr. Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, spoke without text or notes, just a man at a mic with a blank wall behind him.

He spoke of his late wife, Emily. They met as students at South Carolina State after both were arrested at a civil-rights demonstration. “I met her in jail on that day.” Their marriage lasted 58 years. “I remember her telling about her experiences, walking 2½ miles to school every morning, 2½ back home every afternoon.” She lived on a small farm. “She learned how to drive in a pickup truck. She came to South Carolina State in that pickup truck, with her luggage on the bed.”

Her father walked town to town in the off season, 15 miles a day, to cut pulp wood. “We talked about what our parents sacrificed for us and what we owed to our children and all other children similarly situated.” They often talked about American leaders. “There’s nobody who Emily loved as a leader of this country more than she loved Joe Biden, and we talked about Joe all the time.”

He’d wrestled with whether to make a public endorsement. Then a friend died. He arrived early to the funeral and walked around talking to people he hadn’t seen in a while. “There was an elderly lady in her upper 80s sitting on the front pew of the church, just a few seats away from the coffin. And she looked at me and she beckoned to me. Didn’t say a word, just beckoned.” He joined her. “She said, ‘Lean down, I need to ask you a question.’ And I leaned down. She said, ‘You don’t have to say it out loud, but you just whisper into my ear. Who are you gonna vote for next Saturday? I been waiting to hear from you. I need to hear from you. This community wants to hear from you.’ I decided then and there that I would not stay silent.”

He quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote that “he was coming to the conclusion that the people of ill will in our society was making a much better use of time than the people of good will, and he feared that he would [have] regret — not just for the vitriolic words and deeds of bad people but for the appalling silence from good people.”

He said, “South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden, and here’s why.” Because the purpose of politics isn’t lofty and abstract but simpler, plainer: “Making the greatness of this country accessible and affordable for all. We don’t need to make this country great again — this country is great, that’s not what our challenge is.” The challenge is making greatness available to everybody. Are people able to get education, health care, housing? “Nobody with whom I’ve ever worked in public life is any more committed” to that goal “than Joe Biden.”

They got to know each other “doing TV stuff together,” he said. “I know Joe.... But most importantly, Joe knows us.” They used to talk a lot about Brown v. Board of Education, which consolidated five lawsuits against school segregation. One was from Joe’s Delaware. They went over it a lot. “That’s how well I know this man. I know his heart. I know who he is. I know what he is.”

Mr. Clyburn said that during his day in jail, “I was never fearful of the future. As I stand before you today I am fearful of the future of this country. I’m fearful for my daughters.” We have to “restore this country’s dignity, this country’s respect — that is what is at stake this year.” And there is “no one better suited, better prepared,” for the fight “than my good friend, my late wife’s great friend, Joe Biden.”

It was beautiful.

He wasn’t just giving Mr. Biden an endorsement, he was giving him a template: This is what to talk about, this is your subject matter.

It was a speech about the price you’ll pay to stand where you stand. In outlining his life he was saying: I didn’t talk the talk; I walked the walk, and on that basis I claim something called authority.

But what would the impact be? America is in a crisis not only of leadership but of followership. Leaders in all areas — business, the church, politics, other institutions — don’t know if they have the clout anymore to guide and advise their constituencies, they don’t know if they have the heft, the sway. Surely Mr. Clyburn wondered too.

And what followed was astounding, a throwback. What needed saying had been said, and spread. Three days later South Carolina didn’t endorse Joe Biden, it gave him a wave that wouldn’t break, that swept across the South and beyond.

After Super Tuesday, some progressives on social media clearly resented the black vote and the Biden wave. I detected in a few of them a whiff of “Who are these old Southern black ladies to be calling the shots?” It took me aback.

You couldn’t carry their sandals, sonnyboys.

A shooter came to Charleston a few years ago and they were in the Bible study. He kills, and they go to the bail hearing and, in the great incandescent moment of the last decade, say “I forgive you.”

They make everything happen; they’re the ones who’ve long made the prudential judgments on which way the party will go.

For half a century it has been telling them, “We feel your pain, we’re going to save you.” On Tuesday, after coolly surveying the facts and the field, they said to the Democratic Party, “Honey, you’re confused. We see your pain and we’re gonna save you.”

And they did. It was something — a turning of the tables, a doing what others up North and out West couldn’t quite do, and that was saying, “We are not socialists, we’re Democrats.”

The party should thank its lucky stars. It should kiss those ladies’ hands.

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