Clyburn's profile has risen with Obama's ascendancy

WASHINGTON — Around the White House, some of President Barack Obama's senior aides have given House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn a nickname.

They call him Sage.

"He's an amazing man," said Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest advisers, in an interview Friday. "He's a man of extraordinary intellect, judgment and wit. He reads people very well. He's very wise, yet he's very humble, too."

Jarrett said she and Obama check in regularly with the South Carolina Democrat to talk about the president's ambitious legislative agenda and to feel the pulse of Congress.

"They know each other very well," Jarrett said of Obama and Clyburn. "They speak frankly and openly with each other."

The 68-year-old Clyburn, who's the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, has too much admiration for Obama's intellect and political talent to suggest he is anything like a mentor to the charismatic leader who's 21 years his junior.

"This guy is very, very smart in more ways than one," Clyburn said. "He's smart because he has a high intellect, but he's also smart because he's an astute politician. He understands how to make complex things understandable to ordinary people. That's a key to his leadership. No one is suspicious of Barack Obama, because they understand him."

With an expanded Democratic majority in the House and a president who shares his activist approach to governing, at an age when many of his peers have retired — Clyburn's time has come.

"Jim is one of the most powerful people in the country, quite frankly," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "When they write the history of South Carolina politics, very few people will have had a more prominent role to play in Congress."

Clyburn's profile has risen along with Obama's ascendancy. The son of a minister and a beautician appears regularly on television and in newspaper articles, often to discuss Obama and his legislative initiatives.

Clyburn had a big hand in crafting and then moving Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan through Congress, which for good or for bad is already destined to be one of the major measures of his presidency.

Friends and colleagues of Obama and Clyburn said they respect each other, but also speak their minds and feel free to disagree.

Clyburn spoke out during Obama's first visit with Democratic and Republican senators and representatives shortly before his inauguration.

In front of lawmakers from both parties, Clyburn gently chided Obama about the urgent need to secure funding for the old, dilapidated J.V. Martin Junior High School, in Dillon, S.C., one of the poor, largely black communities along the Interstate 95 corridor for which Clyburn has long advocated.

With Clyburn's help, Obama had campaigned at the school in the long run-up to his Jan. 26, 2008 victory over Hillary Clinton in the key South Carolina Democratic presidential primary.

"You and I and many other politicians used J.V. Martin as a prop during the campaign season," Clyburn reminded Obama in the Jan. 5 luncheon at the Capitol. "Now it's time to give those kids and their families their props with a bold recovery package."

Now, Clyburn is locked in battle with Republican South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford in a high-profile struggle to use $700 million in stimulus funds for rebuilding J.V. Martin and other outdated schools in the state.

Ronald Walters, director of the University of Maryland's African-American Leadership Institute, said Clyburn delivered for Obama at a critical turning point in the presidential primary.

Last spring, former President Bill Clinton had angered many Obama supporters with a series of comments about race, including one in which he compared Obama's primary win in South Carolina with the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1988 victory there.

Clinton's remark, widely viewed as an attempt to minimize Obama's appeal in the general election, infuriated African-Americans in particular.

As he'd done earlier in the campaign, Clyburn admonished Clinton that such inflammatory comments about race could hurt Democrats down the road.

"He was one of the few politicians of any stature to speak out so forcefully," Walters said.

Though Clyburn didn't formally endorse Obama until early June, his neutrality helped the junior Illinois senator.

For long months, Clyburn quietly resisted relentless entreaties, from the Clintons and their powerful allies, to endorse her for president, even though he had longstanding close ties with them.

"Without doing very much, he opened the door for Barack Obama to win South Carolina," Walters said. "Obama owes him a great deal."

Despite Clyburn's official neutrality until his June 3 endorsement, friends say they knew where his heart was in the historic contest.


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