When Hillary Clinton was trailing in delegates to Barack Obama in 2008, she called her old friend Emanuel Cleaver.
Clinton told the Democratic congressman from Kansas City, Missouri, that she knew he’d been taking heat from the black community over his decision to endorse her over then-Sen. Barack Obama.
“ ‘I’m hearing about people getting angry with you because you’re staying with me,’ she said. ‘Listen to me, you don’t have to stay with me if it’s going to cause problems,’ ” Cleaver recalls her saying to him.
But Cleaver told Clinton he’d stick by her, come what may.
“I’m not going to abandon my friends,” he recalls saying to her.
Eight years later, Cleaver has been tapped to give a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Clinton at last will accept her party’s nomination.
I’m not going to abandon my friends.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, to Hillary Clinton, in 2008
Although the schedule still is being finalized, Cleaver is expected to speak sometime around 7 p.m. EDT on Thursday night, not long before Clinton delivers her acceptance speech.
The moment in the national spotlight comes as both a vindication and call of duty for Cleaver, a former Kansas City mayor and Methodist preacher who befriended the Clintons 25 years ago, when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas.
He has been intensely loyal to them ever since, even, at times, when it has put him at a political disadvantage.
As one of the few black lawmakers who supported Clinton over Obama in 2008, Cleaver took flak from some in the black community who accused him of betraying his race or even being an “Uncle Tom.”
“I said, ‘Look, my problem is loyalty.’ And I didn’t know Barack Obama and most other people didn’t either,” Cleaver said in a recent interview.
“My position was: I’m not going to change. And I gave this example: I have a two-seater sports car and I’m driving down the road with a friend of mine who is white and I see a black guy who is hitchhiking. And I don’t know him, but I turn to the guy sitting next to me, a white guy who’d been riding with me for years, and say, ‘You’ve gotta get out, there’s a black guy who needs a ride.’ ”
Cleaver said it just wasn’t in him to do that, even when Clinton’s 2008 prospects had dimmed and she called to say he didn’t have to support her anymore.
Obama didn’t hold a grudge, and Cleaver gave a prime-time speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention to support his re-election.
But now Cleaver hopes he can share with a nationwide audience why he believes Hillary Clinton is not only the most qualified candidate ever to run for president, but also one of the most unfairly demonized.
“A caricature of Secretary Clinton has been created and it’s been 25 years in the making,” said Cleaver, who has traveled the country to stump for Clinton. “People who know her up close are just perplexed about this image of her that has been painted. She is a very, very, very caring person who is sensitive to other people, and the reason that friends last for decades, for a lifetime, is because of the way (she) treats you.”
Clinton faces an “almost irrational hatred” from some voters, especially some men, he said.
Here’s an extremely smart woman and also tough, and I think it bothers men in particular to have to deal with a tough woman. I don’t even think many men are even conscious of it. They have words for women like that and it starts with a ‘b.’
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri.
He said his goal on Thursday will be to make his case for the Hillary Clinton he knows and loves.
“The one thing I think is important for people when they think about Secretary Clinton in the White House is her unique ability to take a punch and come back out in the next round fresh and ready to go another round,” he said. “That’s kind of what I want to make people understand, that just looking at what the presidents have done during my time, it’s a very tough job ... so there’s a resiliency required.”
But don’t expect Cleaver to use the convention podium to attack Clinton’s Republican rival for the presidency, Donald Trump.
Cleaver plans an upbeat talk about his candidate and the importance of party unity, he said, and will not resort to partisan attacks.
“You can get the crowd up on their feet and create a frenzy around your candidate without being negative toward your opponents,” said Cleaver. The tone is in line with the reputation Cleaver has cultivated in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is known for writing weekly letters to his fellow lawmakers on the importance of mutual respect and civility.
Clinton has told Cleaver she’s going to call on him to help her again after the election, if she wins.
Asked whether he would serve in a Clinton administration, however, Cleaver demurred.
“I’d rather work with her than for her,” he said. “Right now my opinion matters. When you work for somebody, their opinion matters.”
This week, Cleaver says he’s focused on making sure America elects its first female president.
“It’s a big deal,” he said, “particularly after the nation has elected it’s first African-American president.”