Black candidates strangely missing on national stage


A QUESTION: Is the idea of a black presidential candidate off the country's radar screen?

It wasn't that long ago that the country (Republicans in particular) was ga-ga over the prospect of Colin Powell running for the nation's highest office. He was generally labeled as the first truly serious black prospect.

Fortunately, the former military leader was smarter than those pressing him and did not accept their pre-campaign poppycock and feel-good poll results, showing whites having no problem with a black as president. He saved himself from embarrassment and protected his family from the media wolf pack.

Now, Mr. Powell and African Americans, generally, are far out of the national political picture, a sign of the times, racially speaking. Threats by Jesse Jackson to run again are empty and not taken seriously.

Since their brief but light flirtation with Mr. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the best that Republicans have done in making their party better reflect America is elevate the lone black GOP congressman, Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, to the No. 5 position in House leadership. But no one is expecting Mr. Watts or any other African American to gain a spot on the GOP presidential ticket anytime soon.

It's just not our time anymore. The consolation is that everything is cyclical.

Year of the woman

As for nontraditional candidates, the attention so far is on Elizabeth Dole, who has been on the cover of several national magazines and is widely regarded as the hope of white women, although few give her a chance to head the GOP ticket. At best, she will be taken seriously as a vice-presidential candidate.

Little attention is paid to the fact that Mrs. Dole has never held elective office -- something that was repeatedly mentioned about Mr. Jackson, during his presidential runs.

In fact, Mrs. Dole is benefiting from a national effort called the White House Project -- a nonpartisan group with the goal of electing a woman to the presidency in the next decade. It is widely touting its list of 20 possible female presidential candidates.

The group is headed by Marie Wilson, the woman who turned Take Our Daughters to Work Day into an annual, national event.

No recruitment effort

But there are no such committees forming to explore the possibility of African-American or other nonwhite candidates running for president. I have heard no such discussion among politicians or pundits.

Even serious journals ignore blacks and nonwhites. In several articles, Nation magazine brushed off Mr. Jackson for being too close to Mr. Clinton in his role as spiritual adviser to the impeached president.

Count Powell out

For a party that said it could not win without him in 1992, and it didn't, Mr. Powell's name strangely has not surfaced among GOP pundits or the national media lately. OK, neither has Ross Perot's name, but he was not touted as the savior of the GOP.

The political situation is disturbing because it is symbolic of the country's racial climate -- a problem that seems to be worsening despite appearances and in spite of undeniable progress.

The good news obscures a deep and growing economic and class schism. Suburban commuters who travel Pennsylvania or Georgia avenues in Washington cannot help but notice the mass of idle humanity on street corners.

They are young and old, almost all unemployed or underemployed -- hanging out, seemingly doing nothing and enjoying it. It is easier to pass them by or ignore them today than it has been in a long time. No more guilt feelings.

Many Americans are convinced that the booming economy is taking care of everybody. Many such folks think the health-care system is fine, though the number of uninsured citizens continues to climb. It's widely believed that welfare-reform efforts have worked. But little attention is paid to those folks who have had their benefits cut or have left the roles but can't find jobs; they're showing up in record numbers at Baltimore soup kitchens.

A country deluding itself about those on the bottom can easily forget about blacks at the top of political tickets. But we shouldn't.

The first political party to put a person of color on its national ticket would be saying: To make the nation better, we need the input of all people. That would even resonate with those men who wander along Pennsylvania and Georgia avenues.

Jackson's appeal

Mr. Jackson still has political value. He is one of the few folks who has the gall to leave a White House reception, go to the waiting microphones and blast his host. But he has left his supporters confused and down by pressing the progressive left position during the campaigns, through the conventions, only to switch gears and join the parade of people he sometimes clearly disliked.

In the wake of the impeachment trial, blacks will so closely identify with Mr. Clinton that no one with clout, not even Mr. Jackson, will be able to woo them away. That effectively leaves blacks out of substantive decision-making in campaign 2000.

There is no Colin Powell, and not a viable Jesse Jackson, at the top or anywhere near it.

Paul Delaney is a Baltimore writer.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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