Addressing race relations may not be best use of president's time


WASHINGTON -- If you were among those few Americans who watched the town meeting on race relations from Akron, Ohio, the other day, you saw the essence of President Clinton.

A schmoozer

Mr. Clinton has always been a politician who loves to schmooze about issues and he was clearly in his element serving as the discussion leader in a meeting that, to no one's surprise, ran a half-hour longer than the scheduled 90 minutes. And Mr. Clinton also has been a politician who believes that it is possible to find common ground on questions that others consider irreconcilable.

And, finally, Mr. Clinton has been a politician as president who has been at his most effective doing the symbolic things that will be most widely applauded. Who can argue with a national dialogue over the unhappy condition of race relations in this country today?

But this is a problem that cannot be resolved by a series of town meetings or the prescriptions of the prestigious national commission Mr. Clinton has appointed.

The flaw in Mr. Clinton's plan is not the town meetings per se. Some of the discussion at Akron was engrossing and, at times, even moving. But, by definition, this was a panel made up of

people with good intentions to find ways to bridge racial divides.

Limited audience

And the audience for these town meetings is necessarily too limited to reach any broad cross-section of Americans. The session was televised by C-Span, but only a couple of brief clips made the network news.

Even if a huge national audience were available, however, there are limits on what might be achieved. The racial resentments that are such an important element of American politics are not going to be eliminated with talk. Nor are there any remedies available in either legislation or executive orders.

Mr. Clinton has always had a strong rapport with black political leaders. That first became evident nationally during the 1992 campaign, when he deliberately affronted Jesse Jackson in a controversy over rap singer Sister Souljah and emerged with his black support essentially intact. The consensus among the black leaders was that they were willing to put up with whatever it took to return a Democrat they trusted to the White House.

One of the things that Mr. Clinton and his strategists clearly understood about the electorate of 1992 was that there were dangers in being too closely identified with black aspirations. That, of course, was the reason for the way he separated himself from Jesse Jackson early in the campaign. And it was the reason that his campaign events with blacks were carefully scheduled so that they would not be the major story on the television network news each night.

Welfare issues

Mr. Clinton also played to white resentments with his use of the welfare-reform issue in that campaign. It was no secret that conservative white Democrats -- the so-called Reagan Democrats -- bitterly resented what they saw as the diversion of their tax money to black welfare recipients who weren't working.

Those resentments have not vanished in the last five years. On the contrary, they are clearly the central factor in the reaction against affirmative action that is so obvious in both opinion polls and election returns today. And it is highly unlikely that this controversy can be resolved by town meetings or presidential commissions.

The core of the problem -- beyond Mr. Clinton's reach -- is simply the passage of time. We have reached a point at which a full generation of Americans have no first-hand recollections of the treatment of blacks that made the civil rights movement necessary. Equally important, we have learned that the answer didn't lie in landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nor has the solution come through palliative federal programs.

So Mr. Clinton is left with his own good intentions and his rhetorical skills -- and with the good intentions of the kind of people who will pay attention to the discussion at town meetings.

Troubled programs

No one would argue that the issue is not an important one. But there are others equally important that may be more susceptible to conventional government solutions -- most notably the long-term health of the Social Security and Medicare programs that Mr. Clinton still must address squarely.

There are, however, no easy solutions to such problems. There are no answers that will not inevitably involve a great deal of political pain for those who take the lead. And, heaven knows, town meetings in Akron won't do the trick.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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