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A black American view of Clinton's presidency

A new book offers a consideration of a man dubbed the first ‘black president.’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bill Clinton, once dubbed the nation's first "black president," is the focus of a book chronicling nearly 100 black Americans' thoughts on the 42nd president.

Clinton celebrated the release of his former diarist Janis Kearney's book, "Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton, From Hope to Harlem," as an unprecedented look at his eight years in office.

"I found it fascinating what some people had to say when they didn't agree with me," Clinton said at a recent reception for the book at his presidential library in downtown Little Rock.

"This is a really important book and it gives a voice to all kinds of African Americans."

The book, which features interviews from U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell and baseball great Hank Aaron, is part history and part historical narrative, Kearney said.

"I don't know how Janis found some of these people and got them to say the things that they did," Clinton said. "They're all stories of people who basically believe we can do better and have spent their lives trying to do better and help us all."

Kearney, who served nearly six years as Clinton's White House diarist, said she decided to focus on what other blacks thought of Clinton because she didn't think she could be objective about the former president.

"He is a man I think who's way before his time," Kearney said. "He asked the right questions before anyone else asked them. ... Whether it's important to you or not, his legacy is tied to a great extent to many of you."

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has called Clinton "the nation's first black president," because blacks played a large role in Clinton's election and tenure in office.

Clinton joked during the book's release that he may have the distinction of being in the only band in the state's history to "provide background music for a race riot."

Clinton said in the summer of 1969, during a time of racial tension in his boyhood town of Hot Springs, he and a friend formed a rock band with both black and white players.

When a curfew that had been imposed was lifted, Clinton said the band decided to play at a dance in a Kmart parking lot. While the band was playing, a white girl and a black boy began dancing together, Clinton said.

"Before I knew it, we were in the third verse of this tune playing the background music for a race riot," Clinton said. "I looked up and there were police cars all around, and I thought this is not what we signed on for."