United States Congressman and House Majority Whip, Jim Clyburn
By Alan Cooper
September 27, 2010
Where were you born and raised? What were a few early events that shaped you as a person?
I was born in Sumter, South Carolina on a Sunday afternoon. I grew up with a father who was a preacher, a beautician mother, and two younger brothers with whom I am still close. It was a household with strict rules, but we were a tightly knit family.
Everybody in town thought that one day I would follow in my father's footsteps and become their pastor. I went off to college at South Carolina State University and by my junior year of college, I had decided not to go into seminary school, but to pursue a law degree. Having been introduced to the larger world of a college campus, I did not think that I could live by the strictures of a becoming a pastor. Making that decision was easy. Going home and telling my father was the difficult part.
If my father was disappointed, he didn't show it. I remember very clearly what he said that day: "The world would rather see a sermon than hear one." Since that day, I have tried to live my life by that standard.
In my early years, I was also shaped by something else my father said. One day, he took my brothers and me over in his 37 Chevrolet (or maybe it was his 39 Dodge, I'm not sure) to his neighborhood mechanic. The three of us went out into the butterbean garden to play while the car was being fixed, and we ended up getting into a fight.
When we came back in, my father was sitting on a drink crate, and he handed my youngest brother a chord string, and told him, "Pop this string." He pulled on it and couldn't pop it. He handed it to my middle brother and said the same thing, "Pop this string." He couldn't do it either. Then he looked at me and said, "James, you are the oldest, the strongest, you should be able to pop this string." I couldn't.
Then he took the string and rolled it back and forth between his two hands, and the string completely unraveled.
"Now, let this be a lesson to all of you, as long as you live. Don't let little disagreements that come up cause so much friction between you that it tears you apart."
Why did you decide to get in to politics?
When you grow up a preacher's son, you have service to others engrained into your psyche. I married my wife, Emily, in 1961 and settled into my first career as a high school teacher in Charleston. I looked for ways to help out improving the lives of others around me, serving for several years as director of youth and community programs in the area, for example.
My entry into politics was inconspicuous, to say the least. I tried on several occasions to run for political office – and lost. In 1970, I lost an election for the South Carolina House of Representatives. I ran for South Carolina Secretary of State on two separate occasions, once in 1978 and again in 1986 - and lost both times. Somehow through it all, former Democratic Governor John West saw something in me and appointed me to be Human Affairs Commissioner for South Carolina, a position I held for 18 years. In 1992, I resigned from that job to run for Congress in the 6th District – and finally won! I was sworn in as a member of the United States House of Representatives in January 1993.
You have been serving in Congress ever since and you are now House Majority Whip. You are one of the highest ranking Democrats in the country. How did you rise through the ranks to get to where you are today?
It's a fine line between famous and notorious. I'm not sure I can tell you how I got to where I am today, but I hope that members of the Democratic Caucus know that I can be trusted to keep their interests out in front of my own.
I was elected co-President of my freshman class in the Democratic Caucus, and six years later, was chosen unanimously as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
At the time when Dick Gephardt was House Majority Leader of the Democratic party, six openings came up on the Appropriations Committee. I approached Gephardt with a special request that he not propose a full slate of six people for the Committee, that he leave at least two slots open so that I had a chance to run. I was a long shot, but I was elected. I think a lot of people were surprised.
A few months later, a representative from New York on the Appropriations Committee decided to switch parties from Republican to Democrat. When it became apparent that the switch would cost him his job on the Committee, I approached Gephardt with a compromise solution. I would give up my seat on the Committee if they responded favorably to one of my memos, and if I could come back on the committee after the next election while maintaining my seniority.
In 2002, I asked my good friend from South Carolina John Spratt to nominate me for the Vice Chair of the Democratic Party. He agreed, but few believed that I had a chance to win. I was elected in a three-way race against opponents from New York and California. More than anything, this win put me on track to where I am today as House Majority Whip.
These are historic times in Washington. Do you feel a sense of history when you are voting on such important measures?
These are unique times, but I have been in Washington long enough to know that most of what we are voting on constitutes lurching from one crisis to the next. I have had people come up to me and thank me for voting yes to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). A Superintendent in Dorchester County thanked me because the stimulus package saved 200 jobs in his district. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), an entity whose mandate is to provide Congress with objective, non-partisan metrics and analyses, has continued to stress the importance of establishing positive economic growth, and we are managing to do that. In the CBO's assessment, the ARRA has boosted output and employment relative to what would have occurred otherwise.
The one piece of legislation where I have felt a very strong sense of history is the healthcare bill. Healthcare has been the number one cause of personal bankruptcies in this country. When you think of the protections that are now in place in terms of accessibility and affordability of healthcare, this bill is truly historic. I am very proud of this bill.
If you were President, what would you do to fix the economy?
If I were President, I would put a ˝ of 1% fee on all transaction on Wall Street and fund a series of massive infrastructure projects across the country building roads, bridges, water, and sewers. It would help get people back to work and at the same time provide a tremendous service to future generations in America. Everyone knows that we need to invest in our infrastructure, but sometimes, that is easier said than done.
What is your opinion on the political environment in 2010?
In Washington, too many people put their own self interest out in front of the country's.
In college they teach you the science of politics, but when you get out into the real world, it's all about the art of politics, and there's a big difference. The policy wonks are always willing to espouse big ideas, but what do theories have to do with the practical application of politics and government? That is where the importance of experience comes in to play.
Is President Obama starting to recognize that there might be an experience gap in the White House? Maybe he should invite Joe Biden and Jim Clyburn down to the White House more often.
[Laughs] I think he has come to that conclusion. President Obama invited me to go and play golf a month or so ago. We talked a lot about diversity - rural vs. urban, south vs. north, black vs. white, male vs. female – about how we are all shaped by our experiences, and about the importance of experience.
The important thing is to respect our differences and to truly seek to understand where people are coming from. I was born after the Great Depression in an era of ration stamps. My wife grew up on a farm in Berkeley County and, as there were no buses for black children, she walked over two miles every day to school. In my first meeting with President Obama back in 2009, I mentioned that if there was going to be a stimulus to the economy, that it had better not look like it did in the 1940's. The New Deal was a raw deal historically for black communities. My opinions about the stimulus package were shaped by my experience.
Who do you admire on the Democrat side of the aisle? Republican?
John Spratt from South Carolina does not receive a whole lot of press, but he has tremendous respect in Washington. When most people step up to the microphone and speak in Congress, the audience either tunes out or wanders off. When John Spratt starts talking, people listen.
I also have enormous respect for Nancy Pelosi. She is smart and solid as a rock. It's strange that she has been painted as a West Coast politician when in truth she was born and raised in Baltimore. Her father was Mayor of Baltimore and was also a US Congressman from Maryland.
On the Republican side, most of the people that I admired are gone. Dave Hobson, who served as a U.S. representative from the 7th congressional district of Ohio, was a great leader and someone I liked and admired. It's a shame that Henry Brown from the 1st congressional district in South Carolina has decided to step down. He, too, was someone who had often different views from my own, but for whom I had tremendous respect.
What do you think about the current state of South Carolina politics?
When I was in college, I wrote a short essay about my hopes and aspirations when I graduated, and voiced a strong desire to leave the state and move somewhere else. After reading the piece, my bible school teacher took me aside and said that she was disappointed with me. "If all the educated black people leave the state, how do you expect to make things better," was her argument. She convinced me to stay in South Carolina, and since then I have made a commitment to raise my family here and to have my children attend South Carolina schools. I have always been extremely proud of this state and I have dedicated my life to making it a better place in which to live and grow.
I also used to be extremely proud of the leadership of this state. John West, the Democratic Governor of South Carolina from 1971-1975, was a very dear friend, and when I was elected in 1992, offered me his beautiful old desk as a present. It has been in my office ever since. Robert McNair was a strong leader and a man who got things done. Governor Carroll Campbell and I might have differed on policy issues, but I found him to be a very practical and passionate man.
Today, I am embarrassed by the silliness of South Carolina politics and the lack of vision. When I am home from Washington for the weekends, I love to sit down with my children and grandchildren for breakfast. I can have a more flowing and intelligent conversation with my fourteen year old granddaughter than I can with some South Carolina politicians. There are no absolutes in life. If you live your life by absolutes - you ain't going to make much happen.
What books are you reading?
I read constantly. I wrote the forward for a book called Yearning to be Breathe by Robert Smalls. I loved that book!
Though I have read it in bits and pieces, I have Robert McCullough's book, Truman, beside my bed. It is a great book on leadership.
I also highly recommend a book called Toxic Talk that I have found to be very useful in dealing with others.
I am also reading The Grace of Silence, the fascinating memoir written by Michele Norris of National Public Radio. She grew up in Minnesota after her parents left the South, and years later, as an adult, she discovered that her father had been shot by a policeman in Birmingham, Alabama. Nobody ever talked about it in her family.
What do you see yourself doing after politics? After you are finished in politics, how would you like to be remembered?
I love teaching and I will return to the classroom, probably at the college level. I would do more teaching right now if I had more time.
I am still motivated by the words of my father. By upbringing, training, and disposition, I want the world to see a sermon in everything that I do. In all my dealings with other people, I never want to let petty differences tear apart what is important. That applies to my marriage - next year, my wife Emily and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary - to my family, and to my political dealings. That is how I would like to be remembered.