President Bush's speech to the nation on Los Angeles Friday night was a day late but worth the wait. The president thus had time to digest and mull over conflicting advice by political advisers. Some (including top aides to Vice President Quayle) wanted him to go hard line, strictly law-and-order. Others more wisely pushed for a reference to the need for racial justice. He chose both themes, and he humanized his speech with a reference to his and his family's being "revolted" by the Rodney King beating tape and the jury verdict.
Gov. Bill Clinton's remarks on the tragedy in Los Angeles showed the importance of thinking it through before taking a stand on such an event. In his first public statement Thursday, he condemned the verdict and expressed sympathy for the outrage that resulted in rioting. He blamed "the nation's leaders," by whom he clearly meant the Republican presidents of the past 11 years. That was a mistake, as even many of his fellow Democrats told him. He corrected himself on Friday to say it was no time "to be casting stones."
Ross Perot, who has been cautious and non-specific when asked about other issues, saw the need to be direct and said (on Sunday, after having thought about it) exactly what he would have done if he were president. He said he would have immediately announced a federal civil rights investigation of the beating and flown to Los Angeles. He was not criticizing President Bush for not having done so -- just showing how their styles differ.
What happened in Los Angeles and how the presidential candidates deal with it in the months ahead will have an impact on the outcome of the election. If voters see this as a law and order issue or a black-white issue, the Democrats will be hurt. If voters decide that the party in power has to accept responsibility for breakdown in the social order, the Republicans will be hurt. It is conceivable that in both cases, the beneficiary will be Ross Perot. As an independent and non-politician, he carries no baggage of failure. Many Republicans who can't go all the way to a Democrat and many Democrats who can't go all the way to a Republican may see in Mr. Perot a logical alternative.
We hope politics won't drag these candidates back into playing the blame game. That may be a forlorn hope. Yesterday White Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the rioting was due to Democratic social programs of the 1960s and 1970s. That at least some existing social programs need to be changed is obvious to all -- but it does little good to dwell on the past. The future is what counts, and we mean the future that lies far beyond this or the next or even the next presidential election. If voters and candidates ever needed to be thinking long term, it is now in regard to the urban crisis. Well-intended but short-sighted policies and politics of both parties in the past contributed to the dangerous, explosive situation in America's cities.