Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

For Clinton and Sanders, it’s all about the messaging

Actor Danny Glover introduced Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., Feb. 21.
ERIK S. LESSEREPA
Actor Danny Glover introduced Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., Feb. 21.

GREENVILLE, S.C.

As messaging goes, it’s been an interesting couple of days on the Democratic side of things here in South Carolina.

Let’s start with Bernie Sanders.

Stand on a media riser and watch the enthusiastic crowd that’s gathered for Sanders, and you find yourself thinking: Wow, for progressivism’s idealistic young progeny, Bernie really has become the political Pied Piper.

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Except where African-Americans are concerned.

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Bernie tells the crowd “real change only takes place from the bottom up, never from the top down.”

But as you look at the 5,000 or so he’s attracted to a local sport arena, what you see is Maine after a blizzard.

The Beatles’ 1968 album.

The color of milled rice.

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All white.

As white as Bernie’s hair.

Or almost.

Among the few minorities was the trio who spoke from the platform before Sanders stepped up and spoke on his own behalf. From the metaphorical top down.

Of them, Danny Glover, accomplished actor that he is, left you wanting more.

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Learn, Bernie, learn.

But no. Adapting isn’t the Sanders way.

His own speech called to mind the story of the newly ordained minister whose first church was in a rural community in northern Maine. Determined to make an impression of high-minded seriousness, the young preacher prepared a long, solemn, wide-ranging sermon for his debut Sunday.

Then, as luck would have it, a snowstorm blew in overnight and, by church time, the pews held just one old farmer.

“It seems you’re the only member of the flock who has braved the weather,” the young minister said. “What should I do?”

“Well,” replied the farmer, “if I take a load of hay out to feed the cows, and only one shows up, I feed her just the same.”

And so the young preacher took to the pulpit. Forty minutes later, the last page turned, the last word spoken, he mopped his brow, looked up from his text, and declared “and that’s our sermon for today.”

Shaking the old farmer’s hand as he left the church, the young man of the cloth asked the question uppermost on his mind.

“So what did you think?”

“Well,” said farmer, “if I take a wagon of hay out to feed the cows, and only one shows up, I sure as heck don’t give her the whole load.”

No such ad hoc hay-allocation decisions for the Bern. He gives the whole load, every time.

His speech is a sizable piece of oratorical output.

South Carolinians who have long heard stories about laconic Vermont-born politicians like Silent Cal must find themselves perplexed.

Watching his elaborate arm and hand motions, one can find himself musing that Bernie is Shostakovich, conducting one of his works celebrating the reforestation of the illimitable Russian steppes or an abundant harvest or some other grand achievement of the socialist state.

One wants to say: Um, Bernie, the lazy, hazy days of summer — and for that matter, fall, too — are gone. You’ve got less than a week left here. Cut in half this wooly old mastodon of a speech, and you might just free up enough time to make your way to Charleston before the voting starts.

But brevity isn’t the soul of Sanders. He’s got to give you the entire agenda: The paid family leave, the free college tuition, the $15 minimum wage, single-payer health care, the fight against global warming, the legalization of the herb, the reform of the criminal justice system, the crackdown on Wall Street, the taxes on speculation, the riff on the Walton family, the . . . well, you get the idea.

But, strangely, beyond a few cut-and-paste-for-any-state references, not much specifically targeted at African-Americans and the issues they face.

With Bernie filibustering away upstate, Clinton’s camp has had prominent African-American lawyers and activists making the case for Hillary. I went to one of their events in Columbia.

Their message was three-pronged. Or meant to be, anyway; unfortunately, the delivery was somewhat muddled.

Prong the first: Hillary has much a longer, broader history of engagement with the minority community.

Thus it was that I asked one of the activists how long he had known Hillary.

“I’ve known of her for ages,” he said.

Well, yes, haven’t we all? But when did he actually meet her in the flesh? This year, he said.

Not so with another of the activists, however. His relationship with Clinton went back farther. He met her in November.

Prong the second: Younger voters may be Feeling the Bern, but African-Americans are Still Chill with the Hill.

Polling suggests that’s right — which was why it was a little puzzling when one of the surrogates allowed that African-American millennials are scarcely different from white Gen Y’ers in their love of the Bern — “He is doing great with black millennials” — and that if Sanders can just chip away at older black women, he can make a real run at Hillary here.

It was left to Columbia’s mayor, Stephen Benjamin, to spin the South Carolina message back in the right direction.

The Clintons have a long history with South Carolina’s black community, and “hard work pays off,” he told me. “I think she is going to win and win big.”

Prong the third: Seasoned African-Americans leaders, who know the necessity of strategic thinking, doubt that Bernie can win in November.

The latter is a particularly important surrogate talking point for the Clinton camp.

How do I know? Because when I started to interview one of them, he said: Before we get started, just let me check my talking points. And then, after studying his phone for a few seconds, told me: “Hillary has the best chance of winning.”

Thus it was when, a few minutes later, as I interviewed African-American mega-lawyer Ben Crump about why he supports Hillary, and was told that “you want the best candidate that you think can win the election, because God help us all if the House is controlled by the Republicans, the Senate is controlled by the Republicans, and the White House is controlled by the Republicans,” and further, that “this is a vital election and we have to look at the long game,” and, still further, that “sometimes young people want what sounds good, they want you to tell them exactly what they want to hear,” but “at some point you need somebody who can bring all the different communities and political trains of thought together, and I believe Hillary Clinton is the best person to do that out of all the candidates that remain,” a thought occurred to me.

To wit: Driving this message seems particularly important to the Clinton camp.

I voiced that notion.

Crump gave one of those disarming OK-you’ve-got-me chuckles and offered an adroit non-denial.

Well, he said, whatever the messaging, “That is what I personally believe.”

It’s always nice when that happens – for both reporter and reported on.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.