WASHINGTON -- When President Bush first learned of the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King case, this is what he said: "The court system has worked. What's needed now is calm, respect for the law. Let the appeals process take place."
The comment, to reporters at a White House state dinner, seemed at first an acceptance of the verdict, along with an incredible misunderstanding of the system he appeared to be commending, since no "appeal" is possible after an acquittal.
On the latter point, Bush probably misspoke, and was referring to the pursuit of another avenue against the four police officers involved, on grounds that they had violated the civil rights of King, a federal matter. That is now being undertaken by the Justice Department.
At any rate, the response hardly reflected the general outrage, among whites as well as blacks, expressed across the country on receipt of the verdict. And when the president addressed the nation on television two nights later, his first remarks dealt with the steps he had taken, including the dispatch of federal troops, to quell the rioting, and his condemnation of it. "It's not a message of protest," he said, "it's been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple. And let me assure you, I will use whatever force is necessary to restore order."
Only then did Bush discuss the verdict, saying how he had "felt anger" and "felt pain" on hearing it, and how he immediately had directed the Justice Department "to move into high gear on its own independent criminal investigation into the case."
Nevertheless, Bush did come around to the proper two-pronged approach to the crisis, dealing with the physical side by condemning the rioting and providing forces to deal with it, and with the legal and emotional side by setting in motion the means to deal with a blatantly wrongheaded verdict within the bounds of the federal legal system.
The question now is whether, in the heat of a presidential campaign, the president can resist the temptation to capitalize on the racial polarization that the verdict, and the attendant rioting, present to him.
If he follows his balanced words with some demonstration that he interprets the events of the last days in Los Angeles as a command for action against the inner-city neglect that made the city a tinderbox, he can come out a winner politically. But there is little reason to expect any effective program from a president who has practically made a pariah of the one member of his Cabinet, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, who has long been pressing for such action.
That is not the only way, however, in which Bush can make political points in the wake of smoking Los Angeles. He can, pure and simple, play the race card that has been handed to him by the rioters, whose actions may already have diluted the revulsion among many white voters toward the King verdict. In 1988, Bush did not shy away from playing that card with his attack on Michael Dukakis in the infamous Willie Horton prison furlough case, and since then in the "quota bill" smoke screen he threw up against anti-discriminatory legislation in job hiring.
For the first time this year, suburban (and predominantly white) America will be able to cast a larger vote than urban America, which can mean a big edge for a candidate willing to play on racial fears of inner-city turmoil and violence. And for Bush particularly, widely criticized for not matching his foreign-affairs macho with decisiveness at home, the temptation to run a tough law-and-order campaign will be great. After the Watts riots of 1965 and the Detroit and Newark riots of 1967, candidate Richard Nixon in 1968 did exactly that in managing to edge Hubert Humphrey for the presidency.
Much has changed in the country since then. David Bositis, political director of the Joint Center for Policy Studies, the leading black think tank, argues that it will be hard for Bush to run a blatant law-and-order campaign because the Reagan-Bush record on crime over the last 12 years has been so poor. And he suggests that Bill Clinton's conciliatory message on race, coupled with his call for more individual responsibility, could play well against such a campaign.
But Bush as the man who has said he will "do whatever it takes" to win re-election is not likely to overlook the political possibilities of a situation in which racial fears and divisions so conspicuously beckon.