Bush tries new outlook, but it's still Us vs. Them


I have attended two breakfasts organized on behalf of George Bush by Maryland businessman Joshua Smith. Both were attempts to persuade blacks to vote Republican.

At the first breakfast, in Baltimore four years ago, Mr. Bush made an unfortunate attempt at humor. He assured an audience of black entrepreneurs that he shared their deep commitment to family and community and their strong ties to the church. Of course, he continued with a chuckle, "I was raised as an Episcopalian and so our services probably weren't as energetic and enthusiastic as your Baptist services."

Nobody laughed. In fact, nobody even smiled. (A couple of people did roll their eyes.)

In case you don't get it, not all blacks are Baptists and not all Baptists are loud. Anyway, it is rarely appropriate to joke about someone else's way of worship.

This is why I rushed down to Washington yesterday when I heard that Mr. Smith had arranged for the president to address another group of black business people and professionals.

I couldn't wait to see what Mr. Bush would do this time: perhaps appear in black face, or maybe have his aides hand out souvenir watermelons decorated with the presidential seal.

It was my theory that the Washington press corps might not recognize, or report, any presidential stabs at humor that would be offensive to blacks.

Alas, the president let me down. He treated his audience with the respect due successful business people and serious professionals, and they responded with great warmth. Maybe he has learned a little bit these past four years.

According to the president, his attitude toward blacks has been misunderstood. "I'm sure you know -- I hope you know -- that I have strong feelings about equal opportunity for all Americans," he said yesterday.

Mr. Smith said later that misunderstanding is one reason he organized yesterday's "National Salute to the President and his Black Appointees."

Mr. Smith said the breakfast marked the opening shot of a vigorous campaign by black Republicans on behalf of the Bush candidacy.

"Democrats offer a lot of emotion, a lot of heat," said Mr. Smith, founder and chief executive officer of Maxima, a computer systems company. "But the president understands that civil rights without economic strength is a borrowed event. It can be taken away at any time. Economic rights ensure civil rights."

According to a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Mr. Bush has appointed more blacks to office than any other president in U.S. history. The White House says the president has appointed 285 blacks, or 5.8 percent of all his appointments since 1988.

"Bush's record of appointments," says Joint Center researcher David Bositis, "tends to support his avowed philosophy of rewarding competence and offering equal opportunity to all, without regard to race."

But if it has been good to individual blacks, the Bush administration has been disastrous for blacks as a group. Other reports by the Joint Center state that black unemployment has grown and black earning power has plummeted under the Reagan/Bush administrations. Moreover, the Bush administration has attacked those federal programs designed to create equal opportunity for black Americans.

"That record," said Joint Center researcher John Wilson, "has been very repressive: long on persecution, short on preventions."

All of this might be grist for a pretty vigorous debate over philosophies. Which is better for blacks: rewarding individuals without regard to color, or funding programs that improve the welfare of blacks as a group?

Unfortunately, the Bush record on race also includes race-baiting attempts to woo the ultra-right, such as the now-notorious Willie Horton campaign in 1988 and the venomous Republican convention in August.

Such low-road tactics clinch the case against Mr. Bush, despite Mr. Smith's efforts to rally support. When the president campaigns on an Us vs. Them theme, blacks are given little choice.

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