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In an interview with Salon, Bill Bradley says he's making race a central issue, regardless of whether black voters support him.

Published January 17, 2000 6:00PM (EST)

On the weekend celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., as he dashed to events honoring the nation's iconic black leader, Bill Bradley had his nose rubbed in the fact that although he's made racial reconciliation a top campaign issue, African-American voters are by and large supporting Vice President Al Gore in his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

The New York Times trumpeted the fact in its lead story Sunday, and generally, the poll numbers aren't good: A Jan. 3-5 Zogby poll had Gore leading Bradley nationally among Democratic voters 46 percent to 26 percent. Among African-American voters it was 46-20, and among Latino voters it was 87-6. Gore leads in top endorsements, too.

Is he disappointed? Bradley doesn't let on. But it's on race Bradley has begun to use his elbows as the campaign heats up. He recently took a dig at Gore for first bringing Willie Horton into the national lexicon -- President Bush and Lee Atwater would later make him famous -- while running against Mike Dukakis in the 1988 New York Democratic primary.

"I don't think anyone would have ever heard of him" were it not for Gore, Bradley said to the Boston Herald. "I wouldn't have used the Willie Horton thing. I think that it proved in the course of the campaign there essentially would be a poster child for racial insensitivity."

More quietly, Bradley's campaign is giving the media materials that carry an excerpt from George Stephanopoulos' memoir, "All Too Human," in which he talks about a Gore-led Clinton White House task force to eliminate affirmative action.

Stephanopoulos writes, "The task force was about to set off a political firestorm by proposing to abolish the affirmative action guidelines that helped blacks, women, veterans, and other minorities break into the business of government contracting. When people objected, Gore claimed that Clinton had already approved the repeal; Clinton denied it."

But when I asked Bradley about the issue, he wouldn't discuss it, displaying the ambivalence about going for the jugular that has led some commentators to wonder if he can really handle Gore.

Whatever the politics involved, it must be said that Bradley comes by his stance on race honestly. He has frequently said that he first realized he was a Democrat while watching debate over the Civil Rights Act in the summer of 1964. In addition to training for the Tokyo Olympics, Bradley -- whose parents were both Republicans -- worked in the congressional office of Rep. Richard Schweiker, R-Pa., and on the presidential campaign of Gov. William Scranton, also a Keystone State Republican.

But as he watched the Democrats voting "yea" and Republicans voting "nay," Bradley broke from his parents' party affiliation. When he returned to Washington, it was as the nation's youngest sitting U.S. senator, and one of his first moves was to insinuate himself into a racially charged local union disagreement: trying to get D.C.'s theatrical unions -- the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Locals 22 and 224-A -- to integrate.

"Bill threatened them," says Marcia Aronoff, Bradley's chief of staff for his first two terms and a current advisor for his presidential run. "He told them that if they didn't integrate he'd make a major issue out of it. And they integrated."

Of course, Gore staffers snipe that Bradley's commitment to racial healing manifested itself in a lot of talk and not much action in the Senate. In his 18 years as a senator, they say, Bradley authored 573 measures, and not one of them specifically addressed race. On the other hand, Gore folks point out, 54 of his bills addressed reducing tariffs on imported chemicals.

But some recall that when the Senate debated the issue of honoring King with a federal holiday in the fall of 1983, and North Carolina Republican Sens. John East and Jesse Helms denounced King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a haven for communists, Bradley struck back in uncharacteristic fury. He denounced East and Helms on the floor of the Senate as fighting for a "past the vast majority of Americans have overcome ... They are playing up to old 'Jim Crow' and all of us know it."

Subsequent Bradley Senate addresses on race included a stern lecture to President Bush and an odd moment of drama when Bradley hit the lectern with a pencil to illustrate just what it meant that Rodney King survived 56 blows in less than a minute and a half at the hands of the LAPD.

Maybe more concretely, Bradley has made child poverty a central issue in his campaign, which is crucial for blacks, since one in three black children is growing up in poverty today. In October, in a major policy address on children in poverty, Bradley rolled out his plan: expanding Head Start and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), increasing the minimum wage and introducing child care subsidies.

And in an interview with Salon the night before the nation paused for its only official civil rights holiday, Bradley said he intended to press on with his campaign to make race central to the next president's agenda, whatever the polls say.

You've talked about how important the issue of racial healing is to you, but according to polls, African-Americans still heavily favor the vice president.

That's very true.

So why hasn't it translated into support?

I think because most African-Americans don't know who I am. Certainly in the South they don't know who I am.

Do you have a good campaign organization in the South?

We have good people in a number of places. We have some good people in Florida and Texas. Good people in Alabama. Some interesting people in Georgia and Louisiana. The reality is our operation is not a nationwide organization.

Obviously you know, after the New Hampshire primary, you'll need African-American votes.


So how are you going to get them?

Well, I will make the concerned effort to let them know who I am and what I believe and where I want to take the country.

The Gore people say that you talk about the issue a lot, but you haven't done much more besides talking. True, false, fair, unfair?

I think it's incorrect. For example: Over 18 years in the senate I had a 96 percent voting record with the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights. I co-sponsored every civil rights bill that came through the Congress. I also wrote the Empowerment Zone legislation.

With Jack Kemp.

No, no. I took the Kemp idea, which is just taxes, and changed it into a much broader concept requiring community involvement. So I wrote the Empowerment Zone, I've written a bunch of legislation that deals with child support enforcement. I was very deeply involved in child mortality issues. I've been an open advocate of affirmative action, a strong advocate of affirmative action.

Some of your campaign materials quote George Stephanopoulos' book --

My campaign materials?

It's just press stuff -- an excerpt from Stephanopoulos' book in which he talks about a Clinton White House task force to eliminate affirmative action, which Gore was in charge of. Which I haven't heard you say anything about, though I have seen the sheet.

I'm not saying anything about it.

You're still not saying anything about it? Why not?

I don't know. I haven't thought of it.

But if Al Gore --

What I'm trying to do is say what I positively believe. And lay out my positive record of accomplishments. I think there are a lot of things I can be proud of. Medicaid coverage for the poor. It just started in the early '70s in the Finance Committee. Or Title 20 in the Finance Committee -- child care.

As a senator, one of the first things you did was get involved in a local union dispute in Washington, D.C.

How'd you find out about that?

Why did you get involved, tell me about that?

Well, because it was 1979 and there was a union that apparently refused to integrate. And I didn't make it a cause célèbre.

I know. You didn't do any press for it. I did a search and I couldn't find anything on it.

We got our results. We wanted results.

And it didn't matter to you that no one knew?

If what you're about is making change happen, that doesn't always coincide with making yourself well-known. Or getting press. In fact, for a long time, I operated under the Chinese proverb that there are four kinds of leaders: those who you laugh at, those who you hate, those who you love and those who you don't even know that they're leaders.

And you were trying to be No. 4?

Yeah, make things happen. A lot of times you make things happen by not pushing yourself forward.

But you're running for president, you need --

That's different. Now we're in a different situation. You asked me about back then. Now that's an interesting tension. I'm not a different human being. But, indeed, you have to push yourself forward. And that's what I'm doing. And I think I'm best at putting myself forward when I have a positive agenda to argue for. When I save my outrage for the conditions [of poverty] and not for the rat-a-tat-tat.

Even if the rat-a-tat-tat's effective?

Yeah, well, you know, if you can do politics a different way -- and win -- you transform. I personally think the American people deserve better, they want better, I think there's gotta be somebody that's willing to try to do it, and put themselves at risk in order to do it.

You do, on occasion, slip in to the rat-a-tat-tat, though.

I certainly try to defend myself. I can't spend all my time defending myself. And that's the strategy, to hit me with so many negatives I don't have time to say who I am.

But if affirmative action is one of the most important issues among the African-American community, and you brought it up as something you deeply believe in, something there's still a need for --


-- and Vice President Gore is somebody who, maybe behind closed doors, was leading the argument in favor of abolishing affirmative action, that's a fair issue to discuss.

Yeah, I may do that before this is over.

But just not right now.

Well, I may do that before it's over. I may not.

What do you say to a white American who hasn't gotten a particular job because of affirmative action, to make the case that it's a good program?

Well, there are courts for legal remedies if someone's been unfairly discriminated against. And there have been monetary judgments for people in such circumstances.

But on a national level, what do you say?

You have to talk to them. You have to explain that this is a program that maybe they don't feel good about in this particular instance, but you ask them to consider the bigger picture and see how it's best for the country.

Why is race still an issue?

Race is the unresolved dilemma of our country. It's an issue related to our identity, it's an issue related to our idealism, it's an issue related to our fears, it's an issue related to our hopes. It's in debates about much of American life -- often at the subterranean level - about virtually any issue. And only if you bring things out in the sunshine, so that the slime withers, can we proceed.

Are you saying no president has ever really brought it out into the sunshine?

I think that Bill Clinton is his most authentic when he talks about race. I think that Jimmy Carter genuinely cared about race. I think Ronald Reagan turned the clock back on race. I think Bush was negligent on race. I think Lyndon Johnson took the largest risk for race since Lincoln. And he transformed things. And he made America a better place.

Let's say it's January 2001. You're the president. How do you "transform" things?

I think that you do it by virtue of appointments, by virtue of style. You do it by virtue of trying to build a multiracial coalition. You do it by discussing things people don't want to discuss.

Like what?

Like "white-skin privilege." What is it? How does it work? It's not a pejorative, but having white people understand what it is.

What is it?

Diane Sawyer did a piece on "PrimeTime" a couple years ago, a white couple and a black couple in St. Louis, dressed the same, same income level, went to 15 or 20 apartment houses. The black couple was rejected by virtually every one, the white couple was accepted at every one. That's white-skin privilege. Another example of white-skin privilege is "driving while black." No white mother is afraid of being awakened in the middle of the night because her child made some different moves and had an encounter with the police.

And white-skin privilege in my own case is a very personal experience. When I was a rookie in the NBA, I wasn't the best player, but I got all of the advertisement offers. Why were they coming to me, not to my black teammates? I didn't take them. But why? Because of that white-skin privilege.

Is that why you didn't take the endorsement offers?

Yeah, that's one of the larger reasons. So you try to broaden the vision, try to get people to walk in somebody else's shoes. For example, in 1996, during the Democratic National Convention, I held something called "The Un-convention," which was a forum on race, in which I asked novelists from different races to comment onstage, talk about what it was like to write as characters from different races, in a dialogue. Richard Ford and Toni Morrison had this great exchange. And I did that to try to get this thing to move to a deeper level. And I think the president can do that, if he's willing to put in the time and push people's consciousness.

Then I think he needs to be very active in the Justice Department, in the Civil Rights Commission, in the EEOC -- someone who will bring these cases to a conclusion. Then you have a civil rights division, not only out there in civil rights per se, but issue an order to end racial profiling. We're going to unabashedly support affirmative action,

Then you have policy measures that, if enacted, would improve the quality of life for those who haven't tagged on to the prosperity train. Eliminating child poverty, health care -- those are quasi-racial issues. Take a look at the health care system, which is discriminatory not in law, but in effect. Medicaid for the poor -- you can have a better system than Medicaid.

Meanwhile, Vice President Gore has taken your health care plan, which you argue is part of your program for racial healing, and he slaps you with it.

Yeah, well, he's wrong. And he ignores the fact that 40 percent of the people who live in poverty don't have any health insurance. They're not eligible for Medicaid. You're a Medicaid-eligible mother, you have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old, the 5-year-old gets a doctor but the 8-year-old doesn't because you're a dollar above the poverty level.

But how do you get this message out to African-American and Latino voters? Latino voters, as I'm sure you know, are even more overwhelmingly in favor of Vice President Gore.

You go through the media. You have the resources. You try to reach them. There's no doubt in my mind that these things that I'm espousing are infinitely bolder than those things he's espousing. The Urban Institute took a look at both of our health care coverage plans, and they said mine was bolder, mine was more equitable and mine helped working families dramatically more. I'm giving families under $50,000 the equivalent of a $25 billion tax cut in the form of subsidies for their health care and reduced premiums for their health care.

What besides health care?

Take the issue of child poverty. I laid out a very specific proposal with a very specific commitment to reduce child poverty with $3 billion in the first four years -- that's never been done, that amount in four years -- and then over a decade, to eliminate child poverty. I've laid out a whole series of things: health care, child poverty, raising the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, affordable child care, Head Start, 60,000 new teachers in urban and rural school districts. All of the programmatic elements are there.

But in addition to that, the person there has to try to move us forward to heal the racial divide.

You said President Clinton is at his most authentic when he's talking about race, but do you think he talks about race enough?

Um, well, no, I don't. His year-long commission never issued a report. I don't know why.

Do you think [as Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile recently charged] that the Republican party uses African-American Republicans like Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts and Gen. Colin Powell as props, and they're more interested in posing with them than --

I don't think they're props. I don't think Colin Powell's a prop. I don't think J.C. Watts is a prop. I do think the Democratic Party is better for African-Americans than the Republican Party. But I think that Colin Powell's a major advocate, and J.C. Watts is a competent congressman, who was a pretty good football player.

He was all right. He had to play in Canada.

[Laughing] Not everybody can make it in the big leagues.

Do you think Donna Brazile should have made those comments?

I'm not going to discuss that.

When you see Gov. Bush out there talking about being a compassionate conservative, and every time he sees a little black or Hispanic kid he runs to him, as long as there are photographers around, do you think --

I find that surprisingly old politics. Like attack politics. It's old politics. I find that, you know, who's he kidding? But how do I feel? I feel they're nice photographs. They look nice.

But about Bush, somebody said that the definition of a compassionate conservative is somebody who when you lose your job because you've been downsized sends you a note that says, "I'm really sorry for you."

Somebody who has their picture taken with a child, an African-American child, when he has the highest level of child poverty in the state of the union, almost. What's he done about it? I think that there are ways to hold a governor accountable for results.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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