In late February, three days before the South Carolina Democratic primary, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign seemed doomed. Biden had finished no higher than third place in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, and come in a very distant second in Nevada. He desperately needed a strong showing in South Carolina to stay in the race.
That’s when Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member in Congress, got behind a lectern in North Charleston, South Carolina, and vouched for his friend. “I know his heart. I know who he is. I know what he is,” Clyburn said of Biden. “I can think of no one with the integrity, no one more committed to the fundamental principles to make this country what it is, than my good friend, my late wife’s great friend, Joe Biden.”
Though we’ll never know how many votes Clyburn’s endorsement inspired, Biden went on to win the state, earning almost 49 percent of the vote in a crowded field of candidates, including 61 percent of the Black vote according to exit polls, and all of a sudden his campaign didn’t look so doomed.
Biden’s victory in South Carolina confirmed the 80-year-old Clyburn’s status as a kingmaker in Democratic politics. Former President Barack Obama once said Clyburn was “one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens.”
Clyburn has served in Congress for almost 28 years and is now majority whip. He figures to wield even more power in a Biden administration. He’s the chairman of Biden’s inaugural committee and has been a prominent voice in the Cabinet selection process, urging Biden to nominate more Black Americans and also warning against plucking too many Democrats out of the House. He was also vocal after Democrats fell short of a true blue wave, blaming “defund the police” messaging for hurting many Democratic campaigns.
On Wednesday, I reached Clyburn by phone in Washington. We talked about how he’s going to work with the incoming class of Republican House members, the criticism he’s received for his claim that “defund” hurt Democrats, and how old is too old to be in House leadership. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joel Anderson: Obviously we’re in a really bad place in the United States and there’s a lot to be done. But do you think that meaningful things can actually get done in the House, considering the recalcitrance of the House Republicans right now?
Jim Clyburn: Oh, I do think so. I think we’re going to get a lot done in the House in the next Congress. Just like we got a lot done in this Congress. The problem was not the House of Representatives. The problem was Mitch McConnell’s graveyard. He called it that himself. We’re going to get a lot of things done in the House. The question is whether or not we will have a Senate that is going to pass some of this stuff so that it can become law.
But there are still a lot of House Republicans that won’t even acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, right? How do you anticipate that going?
I don’t know what exactly they’re doing. But just because they’ve refused to recognize the victory, it doesn’t mean it didn’t take place.
Will you try to persuade them on Biden’s victory, or just sidestep the issue entirely to try to find some common ground? Is it even possible to find common ground with people who don’t believe, or won’t acknowledge, reality?
I always want to have bipartisan legislation, but it takes 218 votes for anything to pass the House. And we do have 222 votes on our side, so it is possible to pass legislation without a single Republican vote. We are not going to wait on the Republicans to make a decision about whether or not we should have affordable housing, whether or not we should have the Affordable Care Act. If they want to be recalcitrant, then there’s not much we can do about that. If they want to be cooperative, then let’s sit down and write the legislation together.
One of my colleagues wrote that House Republicans are facing a “real depletion of those within the conference who have any idea what they’re doing.” Does this incoming class seem different to you?
I have not met them, so I don’t know. I would hate to categorize or even classify anybody that I have not interacted with, so I don’t know. I do know, oh, several of them, two of them were supposed to be what? What do you call that thing? G-ANON or whatever …
Yeah. If that’s indicative of the class, then we’re going to have some problems.
You’re chairman of Biden’s inaugural committee. How difficult has that been to put together, given the obvious limitations of the pandemic? I’m assuming the vast majority of it will be virtual like the DNC.
Yes. In fact, we are telling everybody who’s been asking, if you want an example of how this will be, just take a look at what we did for our national convention. The voters and the public at large seemed to be very appreciative of that convention.
We’re going to have a traditional swearing-in. It’ll take place here on the west steps of the Capitol. But it’ll be sparsely attended in keeping with the recommendations of the health care professionals and the attendant physician here in the House of Representatives. And then the rest of it is going to be virtual. I’m telling all my friends: You ought to be able to sit down with the family—in your pajamas if necessary—and enjoy the proceedings. It’s going to be at high noon. And if it’s snowing like it’s snowing today, you might want to stay in bed.
That’s cool. Definitely cool. To that point, though, there are people going outside and doing stuff, like just this past weekend. How worried are you about violence in the streets of D.C. or elsewhere that day?
I’m not concerned about that at all. The District of Columbia police department is well equipped to handle that. Even the District of Columbia National Guard, pretty well equipped. And then they’ve got help from the other side, Maryland or Virginia. I think everything will be fine.
Maybe you’ve seen this interview today: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the Intercept that it’s time for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to go. There’s also been criticism of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the so-called gerontocracy of Democrats. Obviously, you’re a veteran member of Congress yourself. What do you think of activists and younger political leaders who say that Democratic leadership is too old and out of touch?
Well, you know, I’ve heard that a whole lot. I don’t know how out of touch we are. I do know this: I’m pretty pleased with the vote I get every two years. I am pretty pleased with the support I get on both sides of the aisle, back in South Carolina.
I always say I was born and raised in the parsonage. And I have always believed, according to the Scriptures, it is not their words but their deeds, by which we know them. So I’ll just tell people, just look at my deeds. I’m not bothered to get into a battle of words with people.
I was talking to [recent South Carolina Senate candidate] Jaime Harrison last night. And Jaime Harrison says, “I don’t care what they say. I hope you aren’t planning to leave this place.” I’ve always told people I have three pretty intelligent daughters who are very politically active. I had a conversation with them a long time ago. I said, “Whenever you all think that it’s time for me to come home, let me know.” And that’s the way I feel about it. And when you start talking about age, I would answer that this way: Would you rather have a young Clarence Thomas or an old Thurgood Marshall?
Just think about that.
Yeah, that’s real.
That’s very real. So I would think that we need to be thinking about what people do, who they are, what they mean to the agenda. I can think of a lot of old people sitting on the Supreme Court. When we lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as old as she was … I’d much rather have her than the replacement that we just got. So if age is going to be your definition, then you all would be very pleased with the replacement we got for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Speaking in terms of youth: Do you spend much time on Twitter or social media? Do you pay much attention to the political conversations and debates on there?
Not at all. My daughters do, and grandchildren, but no, I don’t. I really don’t. They keep me posted on what people are saying about me, both the good and the bad, but I don’t do it.
I’ll tell you what I do. I give out, as I did last August, I gave out 175 scholarships to young people trying to get an education. And I’ve been doing that before I came to Congress. It has not always been 175, but I think that my youth movement is much more productive than most of the people who talk about it.
I don’t want to spend too much time relitigating the “defund the police” debate, but you said that the slogan was killing the party and cost the party seats during the election, particularly your friend, your mentee Jaime Harrison and outgoing South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham. What sort of evidence or data are you relying upon to claim that?
It’s kind of interesting. The pushback I’ve gotten for that from people.
You probably don’t remember this, but when John Lewis marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it was in March 1965. He was beaten to near death.
Six months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And everybody says it was because of what happened on that bridge, on what has become known as Bloody Sunday. But guess what? Less than 12 months after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they kicked John Lewis out of SNCC. And you know why they kicked him out? Because he refused to adopt the phrase “burn, baby, burn.” He would not let those words fall off his lips. And the guys kicked him out, dethroned him.
All I’m saying is, I was born and raised in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union. And everybody says it’s probably second only to Utah in its right-wing politics. There’s not a Black person elected statewide to anything in South Carolina. So, nobody in this Congress is more progressive than I am. Nobody. I just happen not to get a good feel for sloganeering. Sloganeering can kill you. And that’s all I’ve said, that that slogan is not beneficial.
I’m not against anything. I support it. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept the notion that a sound bite is not detrimental. You talk to any of these people who’ve run. Those people who keep telling me that I’m wrong are the same people that said I was wrong when I endorsed Joe Biden. But now they looked back and said, “Joe Biden was the only one who could have won.” Well, hell, I knew that before the fact. Why didn’t you? I endorsed him because I felt he was the only one who could win. And my wife said to me, six months before she passed away, she said to me, “Joe Biden is our best bet to defeat Donald Trump.” Well, I was wrong when I said that a year ago. So why am I right today? Come on, man.
What you’re saying is that this is more of a feel issue than a data or a polling issue. That, in your experience, you feel that the slogan of “defund the police” is more ineffective than the aims of it are. Is that a fair reading of what you said?
I said I would much prefer reimagined policing as being a rallying cry than “defund the police.” Because “defund the police,” people use that against us. I’ve seen an ad this past week. They’re running that with [Georgia Democratic Senate candidates] Warnock and Ossoff. They’ve got their two pictures up on TV right now. And right across their heads: “They want to defund the police.” They aren’t doing that unless it was poll-tested. They know darn well that that is effective. They don’t want to defund the police. Come on. But [the Republicans] know it works.
Just talk to Jaime Harrison and ask him, did that slogan hurt him in the campaign when his picture was put up there? They had him sitting in the middle, Nancy Pelosi on one side and Chuck Schumer on the other side. And a big caption, “They want to defund the police.” That was all over South Carolina. And I could feel his campaign plateauing.
OK. Let me ask you this. You got your start in state politics in part because of police abuse, the Orangeburg massacre at your alma mater, South Carolina State, when highway patrolmen opened fire on hundreds of unarmed Black protesters, killing three of them. You’ve said that you can see a direct line from Orangeburg to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Which is obviously just more evidence of the long-running institutional problem of racist police violence. So, was it a mistake for you to agitate potential voters and Democrats by drawing attention to police abuse back then? What’s the difference between then and now?
I’m saying don’t use slogans that destroy or undercut your efforts. That’s all I’m saying. I want to see every bad police officer off the police force. Some of them I want to see in jail. And they need to be in jail. There are a lot of bad police officers. But look, how many priests have been arrested for messing with little boys? We didn’t burn down the church and get rid of the chapel. We got rid of the priests. I have never seen the slogan “We need to abolish the priesthood.” Have you ever heard of anyone say that? How many Catholic priests have you seen arrested and making headlines for assaulting little boys?
Quite a few.
OK. That’s all I’m saying. Same thing. Get rid of the bad apples.
Let’s talk about the pandemic. As head of the House select subcommittee on COVID-19, can you give me a sense of the challenges—logistical and otherwise—of distributing the vaccine widely and equitably?
Well, there’s a big challenge. It may get better if and when this second vaccine is approved. I think it will be, simply because the requirement for Pfizer’s version is minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit to be stored and to maintain its effectiveness. For Moderna, it’s supposed to be pretty much ordinary. I think it requires refrigeration but not freezing. So that will make a difference in how these things are distributed and where. So my job is going to be dealing with effective, efficient delivery but also equitable delivery, or should I say distribution. So it’s going to be a challenge that we’ll have to work through. Hopefully we’ll do better this time than was done with the polio vaccine.
What happened with the polio vaccine?
Well, see, remember you had two polio vaccines. One was a shot in the arm, and one was a drop of serum on a lump of sugar. So I’m going to ask you, which one would you rather have? The lump of sugar or the shot in your arm?
I have a sweet tooth. So …
OK, well, guess what happened? When they started distributing that vaccine, the shots went into the Black neighborhood, and the lump of sugar went into the white neighborhood.
So part of my job is to make sure we don’t have that kind of inequity with distribution this time. [Editor’s note: We couldn’t confirm this exact detail, but there is plenty of evidence of racial disparities in polio treatment.]
The House is still working on a stimulus proposal and there’s still a lot to be resolved in terms of where the money is going. What sort of deal do you think is possible? Because a lot of people are saying, “People need checks.” Do you think we’ll get close to that again?
If you had asked me that question yesterday, I would have said no, I don’t. Today, I think we might do that. I think they’re getting close to a deal. See, what I think is going to happen here is that the big number that people have been arguing over will come down. It will come down because I think they’re going to shorten the time. People need to do something now. We can’t go home without doing something. So rather than doing something for 12 months, we may end up doing it for four or five months, which would bring the number down, but you’d still see it get done. Then, leave it up to the next administration, the new House, new Senate, and new White House to get this done because you’re going to have a better White House to deal with going forward.
Democrat or Republican, when you’ve got a president giving leadership, you can get people to follow you. We just got a president now who ain’t providing no leadership. So Joe Biden will. I think that what we’ll do is pass a pretty vibrant bill and shorten the period of time so everybody can save face.
OK, that’s promising. In your speech at the DNC, and please let me know if this is out of bounds or uncomfortable, but in your speech at the DNC you mentioned that Joe Biden experienced profound loss, and that he knows what it takes to overcome it, and that that resonated with voters. We just passed 300,000 COVID-related deaths in this country and we’re basically all in mourning all the time. I know you lost your wife of 58 years last year, before this pandemic hit. Going through a personal loss while there is so much loss around you—that can’t be easy.
I came to the conclusion when I was a sophomore in college in debate with a college professor. He said to me, “Young man, you’ll never be any more nor will you ever be any less than what your experiences allow you to be.” That started me thinking. I’ve been thinking about that all my life. I’ve come to the conclusion that people are the sum total of their experiences. That’s what we are. Joe Biden is the sum total of his experiences. Donald Trump is the sum total of his experiences. It’s just that simple. So Donald Trump experiences growing up with a father who referred to people, even people in the military, as losers. A father who, though they dispute whether or not he was ever a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but they didn’t dispute that he attended Ku Klux Klan rallies.
That’s what he grew up with. A father who denied rental opportunities to people of color. That was his experience. Joe Biden on the other hand left the law firm, after he got out of law school, to be a public defender, to defend people, mostly Black people. So that’s what I meant when I said, “We know Joe. Joe knows us.” So yeah, Joe has experienced loss. If you’re 29 years old, just getting elected to United States Senate, get elected in November, and your wife and children go out Christmas shopping and your wife and daughter get killed. You’re 29 years old, just getting ready, too young to even be in the Senate, you got to wait until you get to be 30 to be sworn in—that is an experience that will teach you something if you can live through it.
To see his son, who everybody thought would be where he is today—I know a lot of people who thought that Beau would be the Democrat running for president right now. To see him die such a slow, painful death. For him to have suffered through two aneurysms. These are the kinds of experiences, when you live through them, they make something out of you.
OK, last question for you. Every year you host a fish fry—you’ve been doing this for decades right? So if you had to guess, do you think there will be an in-person Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry in 2021? Is there any hope?
I don’t think we’ll have it at the time we would have. There might be a Jim Clyburn World Famous Fish Fry around Labor Day. I don’t think it would be … I usually have it around May or June, during the Democratic state convention. I don’t think it will be this time. I think we’ll probably get beyond this pandemic, but I think it’s going to be, right now, I’m saying to people that the real celebration of Joe Biden’s election to the presidency will probably be January 2022 or maybe July 4, 2022. I don’t see us getting to that point before then.