WASHINGTON -- Thirty-two years ago in West Virginia, which holds an irrelevant presidential primary tomorrow, a rich Washington politician -- like George Bush in riot-wracked Los Angeles the other day -- looked the reality of hard living in the face and, according to those who knew him best, never forgot it.
His name was John F. Kennedy, seeking the 1960 Democratic nomination. Dressed in a $100 suit, expensive in those days, he climbed into an mine elevator and descended into the blackness with a crew of grimy, coal-coated miners to see how they eked out a bare living hundreds of feet below civilization.
When the elevator brought this young Boston aristocrat back to the surface, he was visibly shaken. He sat down on a railroad track leading to the mine and talked at length with the miners, while two of his sisters dressed in fresh spring frocks stood by uneasily. Kennedy had traveled widely as a diplomat's son and as a member of Congress. But this episode bringing him face to face with what some men had to do to survive stamped an indelible mark on him, and was credited by many around him with injecting new compassion into JFK's successful campaign and the administration that followed.
His brother Robert, as his attorney general and later as a senator, experienced the same gut check with reality in trips among poor blacks and whites in Mississippi, shaping his aggressive commitment not only to civil rights but to the alleviation of poverty among children in the South. One of the most obvious characteristics about Robert Kennedy, often derided (and with some justification) as being politically "ruthless," was how he wore his hurts on his sleeve, and these trips to the Deep South put them on open display.
Now comes George Bush to Los Angeles. As he strode through the wreckage of the riots triggered by the Rodney King police-brutality verdict, he not only saw a reality unfamiliar to his own living style but also got an earful of complaints and criticism from some of the residents most hurt by the street mayhem. In response, he said many of the right things, expressing "horror and dismay" and "sharing the sense of outrage" felt in the ravaged community, and promising "justice" in investigating the allegations that King's civil rights were violated.
Speaking without a text, Bush told black church leaders: "We are embarrassed by interracial violence and prejudice. We're ashamed. We should take nothing but sorrow out of all of that and do our level best to see that it's eliminated from the American dream. We will do what we can."
The skeptical will recall that this is the same man who played the Willie Horton card against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign and who fought tooth and nail to scuttle the latest civil rights legislation against discrimination in hiring, clinging to a phony argument against "quotas" before finally and reluctantly giving in. And he is the same man whose initial response to the King verdict was that "the court system has worked."
But Bush's visit to Los Angeles provides an opportunity for him to make a new start, if indeed what he saw and heard did jolt him out of his previous aloofness toward the plight of the inner cities. He promised that the riots were "not something we saw for an ugly moment that will be forgotten." But John Mack, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Urban League, said later: "His actions are going to speak louder than his visit."
So far, the president has settled largely for talking in generalities about the need to instill "values" and "family" into the lives of the inner city, and he has fallen back on ideas from his housing secretary, Jack Kemp, to which heretofore he has given short shrift. If these turn out to be the major responses he makes to what he has seen and heard, it will be reasonable to ask whether he really saw and really listened.
If he even throws himself aggressively, however, behind Kemp's modest proposals for tax incentives for the establishment of "enterprise zones" in poverty-stricken city neighborhoods and for home-ownership help for the poor, that will mark an awakening of sorts. Another Bush comment to the churchmen, though, makes you wonder. "We've got to teach right from wrong," he said. "Government can't do that." This from the man who says, "I want to be the education president."