Bill Bradley: The next black president?

His campaign purports to make race a central issue, but so far it's more style than substance.

Published August 11, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

Has Bill Bradley bought the notion that Bill Clinton is indeed the "first black president," as Toni Morrison said last year? That would account for his strange candidacy, which purports to make race a central issue, but offers few details about how he'd close the black-white economic and social divide. If Clinton got to be the first black president by dint of his cultural closeness with African-Americans, Bradley perhaps reasons, he can succeed him with a campaign that emphasizes his affinity for black people, and remains vague about what he'd actually do for them.

Coming from Morrison, a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner in literature, the "first black president" seemed to be a term of endearment, a way of summarizing the cultural echoes, symbolic gestures and actual achievements by Clinton that won him the support of the black community. The characterization, coming as it did in the middle of the president's impeachment proceedings, was no small boost for him at the time.

But the Clinton legacy, shared by Al Gore, is not without its problems for African-American voters. Bradley could conceivably use Clinton's abandonment of African-American appointees like Lani Guinier and Joycelyn Elders, his rush to execute retarded black death row inmate Rickey Ray Rector when he was running for president, his delay in defending affirmative action, his signing of the controversial welfare reform bill and his failure to frontally attack the remaining embarrassment of black urban poverty to tarnish Gore with black voters and endear himself to them.

But with the exception of criticizing Clinton's welfare reform bill, which Bradley voted against in the Senate, he has not. Bradley has made much of the way his relationships with black people -- a family employee, his black teammates on the New York Knicks -- changed his racial perceptions. But he hasn't described how that's led to a changed agenda for political and racial change (though it should be noted that Bradley says he's not going to issue big policy pronouncements until the fall). Mostly he talks about how the nation's racial problems don't lend themselves to easy answers, rails against separatism of any stripe and preaches good old-fashioned conversation, letting blacks and whites share their views. That's roughly what he told the NAACP convention in New York and a minority journalists convention in Seattle last month.

Bradley blew a golden opportunity to make himself better known among blacks when he made a speech at New York's Cooper Union in April. It was billed as a major address, but again Bradley seemed satisfied with the same old racial homilies about unity and harmony. He could have done something dramatic like joining those peaceably demonstrating in front of police headquarters in lower Manhattan to protest the shooting of Amadou Diallo. An innocent, unarmed African street vendor, Diallo was shot by police who mistook him for a suspected rapist. Bradley mentioned the Diallo incident during the course of his speech, but that's as far as it went. Rather feebly, he said those wishing to please him when he becomes president can do so by showing how their department or agency "furthered tolerance and racial understanding."

The former New Jersey senator was much more animated speaking before the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition/Operation PUSH convention this past weekend in Chicago. He challenged Gore to do more than speak out against racial profiling; he suggested that Gore push Clinton to issue an executive order banning the practice. He also made his most energetic call to date to marshal American resources to reduce child poverty, which afflicts up to a third of African-American children. "Reducing the number of children in poverty should be the North Star for saving our society," he said. The crowd responded warmly, but not nearly as energetically as for Gore.

Oddly enough, Bradley has avoided any discussion of affirmative action, a subject on which the Clinton-Gore team is vulnerable. They spent a good bit of time during their first term in office waffling on the hot-button issue, until Jesse Jackson threatened to embarrass the president with a primary challenge in 1996. Since then, Clinton and Gore have embraced affirmative action, if tepidly.

Likewise, Clinton has repeatedly made a big display of his familiarity with black culture, whether it be black music, black churches, black icons or having black friends. And yet the president's embrace of black people and black issues was never as prominent as during the impeachment scandal. Jackson was transformed from Clinton nemesis to spiritual advisor only after he had gotten in trouble over the Monica Lewinsky matter. He made a vaunted trip to Africa and apologized for America's role in slavery, to applause from many blacks, but again the trip was taken at a time when his political fortunes were sagging in the face of impeachment. And the fact that his personal secretary, Betty Currie, is black, and so is his best friend and confidante, Vernon Jordan, didn't seem like great news for black people when both became starring players in the impeachment drama.

Still, the combination of comfort with black cultural trappings, his many black appointments to cabinet-level or sub-level positions and the roaring economy has won Clinton plaudits from most of black America. It doesn't render Gore unassailable, but wresting black support from the vice president will be an uphill battle for Bradley. Fifty-one percent of black voters say they are better off now than they have ever been, and they thank President Clinton for that.

The polls reflect his popularity, which is rubbing off on Gore. They show Bradley to be no more than a blip on the black radar screen. A June poll taken for the Joint Center For Political and Economic Studies, a black-politics think-tank, showed that 42 percent of the black electorate does not know anything about Bradley. That same poll shows that blacks who have heard of Bradley don't think he's such a bad fellow (40 percent). But that's the extent of the good news for Dollar Bill.

It seems the major black constituency Bradley is courting is retired basketball stars, from Michael Jordan to Bradley's former Knicks teammates Willis Reed and Walt Frazier. White former players like Bob Cousy and Phil Jackson, now the Los Angeles Lakers' coach, also give him financial support. So does Spike Lee, maybe because Bradley once played for his beloved Knickerbockers. But the vast majority of blacks and black leaders are with Gore, according to David Bositis, a senior analyst with the Joint Center.

Bositis acknowledged that Clinton was not very well known by blacks, either, when he started out in 1992. But he noted that Clinton had a key base of support in the South, and the South is Bradley's weakest region. His strongest base of support among blacks is in places like New York, Chicago and California. According to Bositis, Bradley must make inroads among rural blacks as well as those who live in Memphis, Atlanta and New Orleans.

"California and New York may be high-profile, but that's not where the black vote is," Bositis said. The majority of that vote (55 percent) is in the South.

It's not too late for Bradley to win the black vote, but with well-meaning speeches that make no promises, it could be a challenge.

When Bositis is asked how he measures Al Gore's support among blacks compared to Bill Bradley's, he says the phrase that comes to mind "is the sound of one hand clapping."

By Keith Moore

Keith Moore is a New York writer.

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