Rep. James Clyburn dishes on his memoir

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn addressed a gathered crowd of party faithful during the Young Democrats of America's Winter National Conference in Charleston this spring. He hopes his new memoirs will be read by young people.

EDITOR'S NOTE: U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn has served in Washington longer than any other current member of South Carolina's congressional delegation, and he recently released his memoir, published by USC Press.

The book chronicles his childhood, his Civil Rights activism, his teaching high school in Charleston, his service under Gov. John West, his leadership of the state Human Affairs Commission and his lengthy congressional tenure. He talked last week to reporter Robert Behre.

P&C: I recall interviewing you shortly after you become House Majority Whip, and at the time, you vowed you were going to write your memoirs one day. How did you decide the time was right now?

Clyburn: "I've been thinking about it a long time. I guess, 25 to 30 years ago, people started talking about me writing a book, especially when we were caught in all those controversies there at the Human Affairs Commission. ... In 1985, I went out to a meeting in Dayton, Ohio, and I decided to take some time and do some introspection. ... Chapters 18 and 19 in the book were written in 1985, and I thought I would be opening this book with that whole introspection."

P&C: But the book instead opens with your detailed account of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary here. Do you think your account of former President Bill Clinton's 2 a.m. phone call tirade - after his wife lost the primary here - is the book's big revelation?

Clyburn: "When I got serious about doing the book four to five years ago, I sat down with (former fellow Gov. John West staffer and author) Phil Grose. ... Phil told me he thought readers would be more inclined toward a book if things were more current."

P&C: Do you feel you have patched things up with the former president?

Clyburn: "The funeral of (Rep.) Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), put me on the stage with Bill and Hillary Clinton. I was sitting directly behind him waiting on my turn to speak. He turned to me and opened a conversation, a very pleasant conversation. ... I told somebody even in death, Stephanie Tubbs Jones proved to be a great friend, and I do believe what took place between us at that funeral, because we've talked several times since, and I've had breakfast with Hillary since. I think all is fair in love and war. I think we're fine."

P&C: What was your thinking behind choosing the title, "Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black?"

Clyburn: "I was at a hearing one day (in Columbia), and it had some racial connotations. I was standing in the back of the room when one of the members of the House of Representatives said something I considered to be insulting to me as a black person. When I approached him about it afterward, he said to me, 'You've got to understand Jim, I'm a Southerner.' I said to him, 'I too am a Southerner.' ... That started out as the working title of the book, and then I hit a wall. I used to hear a lot about writer's block. I didn't think anything like that existed until it happened to me. ... So I went into a corner of my house and was sitting there trying to figure out what the heck to do. ... I remembered that my father, the minister, used to take his last meal every week around 6 p.m. on Friday. He would then not eat again until after church on Sunday. He would spend all day Saturday reading and writing and humming his favorite hymn, 'Blessed Assurance.'... I changed the title to 'Blessed Experiences,' but then I really wanted that, 'I too am a Southerner' piece to be there, so I put a colon there and said, 'Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black.'"

P&C: What were your goals in writing the book? Did you feel compelled to set the record straight about any particular part of your life story?

Clyburn: "Yes, I wanted to set the record straight about Southerners and the Southern way of life, about experiences. I especially wanted to tell the backdrop to those (racial) incidents in Chester, in Conway, at The Citadel and the Confederate Battle flag. Those four controversies, I thought, were never dealt with properly in the media because people would not allow them the kind of attention they needed to have."

P&C: What did you think as far as who your audience would be?

Clyburn: "Every time I finished a part, I would reread it and ask myself, 'Would those 10th graders who I stood before in that classroom at C.A. Brown High School understand what I just wrote?' That was my whole motivation for writing the way I did... I wrote this book always thinking about the way I wrote it because I really would like the high school teachers in South Carolina to be able to use this book as a supplement to their teaching."

P&C: As you reviewed your own life story in the process, was there anything that struck you that you perhaps didn't appreciate or understand before?

Clyburn: "Oh yeah, I found that I was much more faith-based than I thought I was. ... When the book was rejected, not rejected but not accepted by a lot of big publishing houses, I said to the guy who shopped the book to them, 'I'm really not writing this book for them. I'm writing this book for me and boys and girls similarly situated. I'm writing this book for my children. This book is dedicated to everybody who has ever been a part of my life.' ... I just found out those teachings in that parsonage (during his childhood) shaped me more than I ever through, and I don't know if I would have come to grips with that if I had not written this book."

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P&C: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book, just finding the time?

Clyburn: "That's all it was. Just finding the time. I love writing. I've always loved writing. I just did a piece that was published in the Harvard Law Review."

P&C: Why did you choose Alfre Woodard to write the introduction?

Clyburn: "Alfre and I developed a relationship some years ago politically. She's always been one of my favorite actresses. ... We were flying around the country campaigning for John Kerry (in 2004), and Alfre Woodard was on the plane with us. We just struck up a conversation, and I found out that she was born and raised in Oklahoma, which is just as Southern as South Carolina, maybe not geographically but demographically. We just struck up this relationship and interacted over the years."

P&C: The reviews from everyone from Vice President Joe Biden to Warren Buffet to leading ministers and historians have been quite favorable. Has anyone criticized your book, and what have you made of that?

Clyburn: "I don't think everybody has seen it yet. I'm sure I'll have my critics. I feed off critics. I'm going to be very disappointed if I don't have to defend some stuff I said in this book. I will tell you this: Every single thing in this book is true. All the truth I know is not in the book, but everything I put in the book is true."

P&C: You're seeking re-election this year, so there are more chapters to your story yet to be written. Tell me about your future plans, politically and otherwise.

Clyburn: "I do plan to write another book. I have not yet decided exactly how to deal with it. ... I think there's a book about those people in Clarendon County who challenged the system (public school desegregation) that led to the Brown (v. Board of Education) decision. ... I think there's a book in my experiences with them and my work in rural communities. ... As soon as this election is over, win or lose, I think I'm going to sit down and do another book."