It has been something of a year for James Clyburn.
Having helped Joe Biden win the South Carolina primary and in doing so salvage and reboot his dying campaign, he watched him secure the Democratic nomination, and then defeat Donald Trump. With the transition having been delayed by Trump’s refusal to concede and a flurry of legal challenges, he has now used his voice to press for a genuinely diverse cabinet, one that more truly reflects the America he sees in his state’s sixth congressional district.
All this amid a pandemic that has already robbed more than 320,000 Americans of their lives, and which is far from beaten yet.
When Biden announced the first names, including the establishment veteran Antony Blinken for secretary of state, Clyburn spoke out, saying he wanted to see more Black picks to join Linda Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador.
“From all I hear, Black people have been given fair consideration,” Clyburn told The Hill. “But there is only one Black woman so far.”
It seems Biden listened. Gen Lloyd Austin was tipped to be the first Black secretary of defence, Marcia Fudge was chosen to head the department of housing and urban development, Deb Haaland, a Native American for interior, Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of homeland security and Xavier Becerra in health and human services.
“I think he is doing very well with his appointments so far,” Clyburn tells The Independent. “When I spoke earlier, after the first rollout, I was concerned it gave the kind of first impression I was a bit uncomfortable [with]. I started getting phone calls from people. And first impressions are lasting.” Now, he says, Biden is doing “better”.
Biden has lots of voices in his ear, of course. But it is a certainty Clyburn’s is one of them. When the drama of this year’s election is assessed, it is difficult to identify a single individual who played a more critical role in turning things around for Biden, reviving his third bid for the presidency, when all seemed lost.
Now, with the words “President-Elect” proceeding his name and with the likes of Mitch McConnell finally admitting the game is up, it can be hard to recall how bad things were were for the one-time vice president.
But after being humiliated in Iowa, where he came fourth, rejected in New Hampshire, where he ended firth, and rebuffed in Nevada where he came second, it seemed little was going to stop his rival Bernie Sanders’ juggernaut, for better or for worse.
And then, in late February, Clyburn, stepped before a microphone in North Charleston and made it clear he was throwing his support behind Biden.
Days later, Biden stormed to victory there, bagging 48 per cent of the vote, ahead of Sanders on 19 and Tom Steyer in third place, on 11 points.
“Just days ago the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead,” said Biden. “Now, thanks to all of you – the heart of the Democratic Party – we just won, and we’ve won big.”
Biden’s campaign got a massive boost in donations and support, and establishment backing. He further cemented his position on Super Tuesday, and shortly afterwards many of his Democratic rivals – convinced Sanders could not defeat Trump, despite polls suggesting he could – were halting their campaign and endorsing Biden.
Given all of this, as Biden assembled his team, Clyburn could have pretty much requested whatever he wanted. Had the 80-year-old, 14-term congressman, asked for a cabinet spot?
“I do not want one, and if offered one I would not take one,” he says.
Why not? “Because I’m not interested in being in this administration, not at this time. I’m more interested in the work I’m doing here in the House of Representatives. This is not about me, this is about my children and grandchildren.”
In his 2014 book Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black, Clyburn talks about growing up in the American south, the eldest son of fundamentalist ministers, and playing clarinet in his high school marching band.
“My life doesn’t lend itself to classification or categorisation,” he writes. “I have defied stereotypes throughout my life and have made destroying broadly held myths about Black people my highest priority.”
One classification correctly assigned to Clyburn is that as Democratic whip in the House of Representatives, and third in rank behind Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, he is the most senior African American in Congress. As such, he is often called on to weigh in on matters of racial injustice, or when people of colour are killed by the police,
When George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, was killed by police in Minneapolis in May, triggering protests for racial justice and change across the nation, he supported the demonstrations. Yet, he denounced those protests involving violence, and like Biden he rejected demands to “defund the police”, a slogan he and others in his party has said cost Democrats in down-ticket races in November.
One job Biden has not yet filled is that of attorney general, and there have been calls he pick an African American, perhaps former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, or Jeh Johnson, who served as Barack Obama’s head of homeland security.
Despite his push for a diverse cabinet, Clyburn claims having a Black individual in that role does not, by itself, lead to the change he seeking.
“I said before, skin colour or gender doesn’t matter. What matters is what they stand for,” he says.
“Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall are both Black. Thurgood Marshall stands for what I stand for. Clarence Thomas does not stand for what I stand for. So it’s not just about being Black. We need to appoint people to this office who understand what it is we’re trying to do as Democrats. Skin colour is not the only criteria for doing this.”
At the same time, he says the pick of Austin, who currently sits on the board of Raytheon and who would be the first Black secretary of defence if confirmed by the Senate, was a powerful move.
“It sends a great message – that we recognise the fact that 40 per cent of the military are minority,” he says. “I think that’s much more reflective of the sensitivity I’m talking about, than maybe any other cabinet position.”
Last year, there was anger at the highest level of the Congressional Black Caucus when the progressive group Justice Democrats announced it was challenging a number of incumbent members of the party, many in safe Democratic seats, and a disproportionate number of them African Americans.
What message did Clyburn have for the group, closely associated with Alexandria Occasio-Cortez?
“These are not our seats, these seats are owned by the people,” he says. “So whoever it is, they are free to run for the seats. I would not tell anybody not to run for those seats. If you feel compelled to run, run. And anyone who gets challenged, the fact is that if you are doing your job and you’re connected to your constituents, you don’t have to worry about any challenge.”
In the House, Clyburn has chaired a select committee on the coronavirus crisis, the task of which has been to act as a watchdog to the government’s response to the crisis. This week, it issued subpoenas to two top Trump administration health officials – health secretary Alex Azar and CDC Director Robert Redfield – over alleged political interference in the response. In a statement, Clyburn claimed Trump administration appointees tried to block or alter up to a dozen scientific reports about the virus.
The congressman tells The Independent the situation facing the nation this winter is “very grim”, as the death toll passes 320,000 and the number of infections 18m.
“The headlines are very disconcerting. And if we’d had leadership in the White House, we would not be having these headlines,” he says. “There’s a reason every other country seems to have done much better with this virus than we have done in this country. That’s because those countries had leadership that we did not have.”
He adds: “Donald Trump is the poorest excuse for a leader that this country has ever had, certainly in my lifetime.”
Communities of colour have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, the result of a combination of a reduced access to affordable healthcare and pre-exiting conditions that have left them more vulnerable. Does he believe racism played a role in Trump’s apparent lack of concern about the scale of the dead?
He says he cannot know what is inside Trump’s head, but believes people of colour would have suffered more, even if the White House had taken every available step to address it.
Despite the Democrats’ losing seats in the House this November, Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn were all reelected unopposed, as where the party officials directly beneath.
Yet there are still some who say it is time for them to make way for a new generation of leadership. Among those most frequently named as possibly moving up, are New York congressman Hakeem Jeffries, and – at least among progressives, Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal.
Does Clyburn, who first served as whip in 2007, feel it would be appropriate for he and the others to make way? One senses his tone harden just a notch as he answers.
“I don’t remember anyone making room for me when I decided to run for whip. I decided this was something I wanted to run for. I ran and I defeated two other people. So anyone who wants to run for whip or speaker or for leader, just run. Nobody’s going to give you permission to run,” he says.
“When I was challenging segregation in the South, organising sit-ins, I didn’t ask anyone permission ‘Please let me sit-it in at your counter.’ Damn it, I did it. John Lewis didn’t ask for permission. He did it.”
He adds: “So if anyone’s siting around, waiting on someone to give them permission to run, you are going to be waiting a long time. You don’t get permission from anybody to run for these positions. Run, if that’s what you want to do.”