Are Bill Clinton's remarks about Obama shocking?

Pundits are shocked -- shocked! -- about former president Bill Clinton's remarks this weekend, dismissing Sen. Barack Obama's victory over Sen. Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina primaries as a mere re-play of Jesse Jackson's victories there in 1984 and 1988.

The media has gone full tilt, accusing Mr. Clinton of dangerously fanning the flames of race -- from "America's first black president," no less. But is it really a surprise?

Not to those who study the history of presidential campaigns.

It was almost exactly this time of year 16 years ago that then-Gov. Bill Clinton, eager to break away from a tight pack of 1992 Democratic primary hopefuls, decided crime would be one his big-ticket issues. Democrats should "no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent," he would proclaim from the campaign trail.

How did candidate Clinton choose to show he was "tough on crime?" By flying down to Arkansas, mid-campaign, to personally preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded African-American man.

It was only the third death sentence carried out in Arkansas since 1973, and Clinton made a point of being on hand for the TV crews when Rector was killed by lethal injection on January 24, 1992.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that executing persons who are mentally retarded is "cruel and unusual punishment." And in the court of public opinion, many African-Americans judged that Clinton -- far from being a "black president" -- was in reality another white president who was all too willing to use race when it suited him. Here's what Margaret Kimberley of The Black Commentator had to say:

[R]icky Ray Rector became world famous upon his execution in 1992. Then Governor Bill Clinton left the campaign trail in January of that year to sign the warrant for Rector's execution. Rector's mental capacity was such that when taken from his cell as a "dead man walking" he told a guard to save his pie. He thought he would return to finish his dessert.

I try to remember this story when I am told that all Black people love Bill Clinton or that he should be considered the first Black president. Clinton wasn't Black when Rector needed him. He was just another politician who didn't want to be labeled soft on crime.