Did anybody actually notice the “Sister Souljah” speech at the time? by mattsteinglass
June 17, 2008, 11:42 am
Filed under: President

I followed the 1992 presidential campaign pretty damn closely. Yet starting in the late 1990s, I began more and more often to hear people referring to something that had supposedly taken place in the campaign, a “Sister Souljah moment”, that I didn’t remember at all. Apparently Bill Clinton had denounced Sister Souljah, a rapper associated with Public Enemy whose name I knew only because she had appeared at a weird panel discussion at Harvard I’d attended which also featured Chuck D. — I think it was a panel on epic poetry and hip-hop moderated by some English professor. Anyway, the “Sister Souljah moment” was always referred to as something which some new candidate ought to do in order to distance him/herself from the most deleterious fringe elements of the base. I have no idea where I heard it first. Maybe it had something to do with John McCain denouncing Jerry Falwell or something. But it seemed weird that this supposedly signal event of the ’92 campaign had completely escaped my attention at the time.

Now along comes the NYT’s Michael Cohen to say it’s time for John McCain to have another Sister Souljah moment, and he introduces it by claiming that Bill Clinton’s speech, which it turns out was at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition conference or something, completely changed the popular perception of the Democratic Party. Cohen calls it “the most influential campaign speech of the last two decades.”

Wow! thinks I, can that be right? You’d figure it must have played pretty heavily in the next day’s NY Times then. So I run a search on the NYT site for June 14, 1992. Here is the top campaign story of that day:

THE 1992 CAMPAIGN: Voters; Words on Bush’s Lips in ’88 Now Stick in Voters’ Craw
by Jeffrey Schmalz

It’s about “no new taxes”. I had to search deep inside the results before I found the Times story on the Sister Souljah speech that day, by Gwen Ifill, who reported that Jesse Jackson had said some people were “irritated by that diversion”. That was about it. I think this is one of those “turning points” that happened in the heads of analysts about 5 years later, not in the heads of normal people at the time.


1 Comment so far
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I actually did notice the “Sister Souljah” moment at the time, or perhaps in the following week. It wasn’t the speech so much as the commentary which immediately followed it.

I wonder if it would have vanished had Jesse Jackson not complained about it.

Comment by Anthony

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