Alan Keyes brings the unmistakable aura of racial confusion to the great American game of politics. He's the black man whom millions of blacks will love to hate, once they hear what he's saying. And he's the Republicans' chance to show the whole country that they have a black person in their party who speaks his mind in public, even as some old-line white party members cringe at the thought.
Keyes is our reminder that Americans have no memory. He goes on the radio every morning and gives hell to a liberal agenda that was pieced together three decades ago and was designed, in large measure, to help black people who'd been systematically frozen out of the American dream.
It was the Republicans who fought that agenda. They fought equal voting rights, and desegregation of public schools, and a whole line of basic human rights that they found offensive. Then they cashed in on the battles they'd lost by capturing overwhelming numbers of white voters in every national election since.
In the ensuing three decades, has the American racial equation changed? Yes, but. Yes, but the U.S. Census Bureau says black men still make only about three-quarters of the money made by white men. Yes, but black unemployment is far higher than for whites. Yes, but elements of the black community seem bent on a self-destructive course of narcotics and gunplay and family disintegration that have -- make no mistake on this -- created a generation of conservative blacks for whom elements of Alan Keyes' agenda strike a chord.
The last election, everybody says, was all about the revolt of angry white men, but if these white guys take a look around them, they'll find Alan Keyes in their ranks. And he's running interference for a lot of them who lay off mentioning certain hot-button issues for fear of being called racists.
Keyes is right about some things, but it's tough to know who would be against him. He's in favor of strong families. So, where's the argument? He's anti-crime. Is somebody out there running on a pro-crime agenda?
But Keyes sometimes runs into problems with his own allies. He thinks abortion is the most crucial moral issue facing the country, in a time when many Republicans agree but are finding it politically uncomfortable to say it out loud. In a time of compromise on welfare, Keyes is one of the most strident, unbending voices against it. And he's getting big support from pro-gun civilian militias, in a time of terrible urban violence.
Can Keyes get himself elected president? Don't be ridiculous. In two attempts to win a U.S. Senate seat, he had voters diving under tables. Against Paul Sarbanes, he didn't get 40 percent of the vote. Against Barbara Mikulski, he didn't get 30 percent.
But Keyes has a wonderful thing going for him, which is the very impossibility of his actual election. This frees him to do something almost unthinkable among politicians: Because he has nothing to lose, he can speak his mind.
It was Keyes, for example, who watched the NAACP under Benjamin Chavis embrace Louis Farrakhan. On his radio talk show one morning, Keyes noted the irony of an organization reaching out to such a person after having kept its distance from Martin Luther King during the great civil rights battles 35 years ago, when the NAACP worried that King's public demonstrations would hurt its courtroom integration battles.
When he announced his presidential candidacy Sunday, in a meeting of the California Republican Assembly, Keyes declared -- "thundered," the New York Times reported -- "Somebody has got to stand up and raise the banner. Too many of our political leaders finesse or run away from the questions of principle that will determine the kind of people we are and want to be."
Reporters around here understand the "thunder." Keyes doesn't just tell you, he shows you. His eyes flash. The muscles in his face clench. His hands tremble. You walk away from an interview with Keyes feeling as if he's ready to take hostages.
Now is his moment of capturing a little national attention. Some will find it confusing: a black man who's a conservative Republican, giving hell to a historic agenda that dared to give a voice to those like . . . well, like Alan Keyes.