NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Saying "it's a good time for confession" about past Republican failures to reach out to black voters, Bob Dole yesterday said he was sorry that he didn't address last month's NAACP convention in Charlotte, N.C.
The Republican presidential nominee, who spoke to the National Association of Black Journalists at its convention, called it a missed opportunity but indicated that he hadn't known of the invitation.
Dole did not mention that he had accused NAACP President Kweisi Mfume of trying to set him up by issuing the invitation. Dole's staff said at the time that a "major scheduling conflict," which turned out to be a photo session in Virginia, prevented his appearing.
Pledging not to pursue the politics of racial division, Dole received a polite welcome from the crowd of 3,000 despite his attacks this year on affirmative-action programs. It was the first time the nominee and his running mate, Jack Kemp, brought their promise of tax cuts and job growth before a predominantly black audience.
His 41-minute speech focused on bolstering his civil rights credentials and selling his economic proposals to black voters. "We will not divide our country. We will seek healing and reconciliation," Dole vowed.
In response to a question, he departed from Republican orthodoxy on one point: He said he would not back a plank in the Republican platform to deny U.S. citizenship to children born in this country to illegal immigrants.
"I would not support that part of the platform," he said.
Dole and Kemp told the crowd that they weren't conceding the black vote to President Clinton, who won the support of 85 percent of African-American voters in 1992.
Dole said black voters should ask the Democrats, "What have you done for me lately?" and answered his own question: "Higher interest rates, tax increases -- that's what you've done for me lately."
Dole's and Kemp's speeches were received largely in silence, but their vows to court black voters were warmly applauded.
"They got points for showing up," said Caroline Brewer, an editorial writer for the Record in Hackensack, N.J. "Dole made a big mistake in not agreeing to speak to the NAACP."
Joe Madison, a talk show host with WRC-AM in Washington, said Dole's performance was "theatrically perfect" but that his opposition to affirmative action has little credibility with black professionals, many of whom got their starts through such programs.
Collins Yearwood, an AT&T; media relations specialist from New Jersey, said Dole and Kemp took "a step in the right direction in making overtures to black voters," but he said Dole's job-creation proposals sounded like "trickle-down in disguise."
Dole, the former Senate majority leader from Kansas, recited his history of support for major civil rights legislation over his 35-year career, including being floor manager of the bill that made Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.
He referred to himself as a "member of a minority group" because of the World War II wounds to his right arm that left him disabled. "The Republican Party will never be whole until it earns the broad support of African-Americans and others by speaking to their hopes," he said.
Dole said he had reversed his previous support for affirmative action because he had come to believe that racial and gender preferences were divisive. He said he supported "outreach to give people the opportunity to compete, not preset outcomes."
He said he and Kemp were offering "a new civil rights agenda not focused solely on rights," but on job growth, school choice, safer streets and stronger families.
"The best answer to welfare is a job. The best answer in the crisis of our cities is the creation of new, better-paying jobs," Dole said.
He said his supply-side plan of a 15 percent tax cut, a $500-per-child tax credit and a 50 percent reduction in the capital gains tax would spur economic growth.
Kemp, the former housing secretary who has enjoyed more credibility among blacks than most Republicans, was asked whether he was forfeiting his status as "a semi-soul brother" by dropping his support for affirmative action in joining the Dole ticket.
"What do you mean, 'semi?' " Kemp joked, then saying: "I believe with all my heart affirmative action is very much needed, but the right kind of affirmative action."
Kemp described that as "affirmative efforts" to open up opportunity. He quoted Mfume, a strong advocate of affirmative action, as saying that "lack of access to capital, credit, ownership, education and opportunity" was the greatest deterrent to black progress.
Madison, also an NAACP national board member, said Kemp's labored response showed he had simply flip-flopped on the issue to become Dole's running mate.
"It's clear Kemp is waffling on affirmative action," he said.
Pub Date: 8/24/96