Clinton the artful dodger gets Schmoke to pinch-hit


NEW YORK -- Bill Clinton cannot stand the nickname "Slick Willie," but when it comes to slipping out of tight political spots, few seem better lubricated.

Take the New York primary on Tuesday. While Clinton needs black votes, he also needs to stay far away from Jesse Jackson in order not to offend some Jewish voters who dislike Jackson.

(When Jerry Brown said he'd like to have Jackson as a running mate, Brown nearly got his head torn off by some Jewish leaders here.)

But how does Clinton retain black support while refusing to appear in public with Jackson?

Easy. He gets a replacement. A replacement who, while lacking Jackson's wide popularity, also lacks his negative baggage. A replacement who can appeal to black voters without scaring off white voters.

That's right: Bill Clinton got Kurt Schmoke.

And he got Schmoke to come to New York to campaign even though Schmoke has an almost pathological aversion to leaving Baltimore.

When I asked Schmoke about his campaign trip, one of the first things he said was: "I spent the whole morning working on city business and then I went to New York in the afternoon and evening and got back to Baltimore at 3 a.m. And I went to work the next morning."

Schmoke went to two black newspapers and a black radio talk show in New York City. "I talked about Clinton's positions and the things he has done as governor," Schmoke said. "And I talked about his commitment to black people."

Which is precisely what Clinton wanted. But what does Schmoke want? What does he get out of this? The promise of a cabinet position? Attorney general, perhaps?

Schmoke laughed at this and I had to laugh with him. Cabinet members must be confirmed by the Senate, and the Senate is not about to confirm anyone who advocates decriminalizing drugs in America.

"What I want," Schmoke said, "is to be mayor of Baltimore under a good Democratic president."

And he believes that as president Clinton will spend a lot of money on America's cities. But will he?

At a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News last week, Clinton was asked what he would do for the cities.

And he replied that "no politician can promise to write a big check in the near term."

A few days later, however, he advocated sending $1 billion to the former Soviet Union in the near term.

But no matter. Clinton has told Schmoke he will help the cities and Schmoke believes him and is campaigning very hard for him.

Though on a personal level, they are an odd couple. Take the way each addressed the question of personal drug use.

True, the press often seems obsessed with the past indiscretions of politicians, but when a candidate is asked about drug use, he can either answer or refuse to answer.

Except Bill Clinton. Who did both.

For years, Clinton has responded to the question by saying he has never broken "a state law" or "the laws of this country." Then, last week, he was pinned down and admitted he had smoked marijuana in England, though he "didn't inhale."

Compare this to Schmoke's answer when I asked him in January 1989 if he had ever used drugs.

"I tried marijuana my senior year of college, but I was not part of the drug culture," he said. "And the marijuana didn't do much for me. I have never used any other controlled substances."

And that is the way one puts an issue to rest: by answering directly and taking the consequences. (I printed Schmoke's reply and nobody seemed to care.)

And while any number of adjectives have been attached to Schmoke -- cold, impersonal, detached -- slick is not one of them.

But does Clinton deserve his nickname? You decide:

Appearing before the editorial board of the New York Post last week, Clinton was asked if he considers Jesse Jackson qualified for the vice presidency.

And although Clinton had previously said he "wouldn't rule out" Jackson, he now said, "I think I made a mistake discussing it."

But is it fair to assume he still thinks Jackson is qualified?

"It's fair to assume," Clinton said, "I don't have anything else to say about it."

Slick? This guy could slide across the keyboard of a piano without sounding a note.

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