Two liberal Democrats tried to out-liberal each other Monday
night in a debate over issues of importance to minority communities.
That the debate went down in Iowa, a state where only 2 percent of the population is
African-American, wasn't as anomalous as it may seem.
Democratic rivals Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley were there for the Brown and Black Forum, the country's
only presidential debate dedicated to discussion of issues of
importance to the African-American and Latino communities. The debate has been a mainstay of the Democratic primary campaign since 1984.
As I write this in the press room, former Celtics great Bill Russell
(Bradley supporter) is hugging Labor Secretary Alexis Herman (Gore
supporter). And if the sight of these two superlative
examples of America's black bourgeoisie -- either of whom could buy
and sell every white reporter in this room -- doesn't say something
about how far we've come, I don't know what would.
But, as both Bradley and Gore insisted -- and moderators Soledad
O'Brien of NBC and Tavis Smiley of Black Entertainment Television
reiterated -- we haven't come far enough. On this celebration of the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth, both men said all the right things, speaking in favor of affirmative
action and diverse Cabinet appointments and against "racial
profiling" by police officers and bigotry in general. They also offered
varying degrees of shameless pandering -- whether kissing the ass of
the Rev. Al Sharpton or speaking in favor of
returning the right to vote to former felons.
Both hinted that they would appoint a
Latino justice to the Supreme Court, though each stopped short of an out-and-out promise.
Both hemmed and hawed on the plight of Elman Gonzalez,
unrealistically expressing a desire for the issue to resolve itself
in a way that will leave everybody happy.
There were some small differences between the two. Gore pointed out that Bradley was willing
to support some experiments in school vouchers while in the Senate, and Bradley argued that he alone supported adding gay and lesbians to the 1964 Civil
Rights Act. But from the very first question, in which both men
agreed that the Confederate flag should be taken down from the
South Carolina Capitol, their personae -- rumpled professor vs.
polished pol -- were more telling than their answers.
Bradley took the Confederate flag question and turned it into a
discourse on race and self-improvement. "It's an offense to our
common humanity," he said. "You know, the way politics is in the
country today, people don't expect much of politicians because
politicians don't expect much of them. I mean, for many politicians
it's dangerous to tell the truth. There is no subject about which that
is truer than the issue of race. Somebody once said, 'Many people
want to change the world, but few people want to change themselves.'
If we're going to make progress on race in America, we have to do
Gore agreed with Bradley, and then responded as the scrappy partisan
he is. "Sixty percent of the people of South Carolina want it to come
down," Gore said, "it's only the Republican candidates for president
who are so scared of the extreme right wing that they will be
tolerant of intolerance, lest they offend the offensive."
But just in case there are any Dixiecrats left, Gore did throw a small bone to the other side. "There are some people
who see the Confederate flag in a different way," Gore said, "and I
think that we have to try to bring them into a shared understanding
of why, as a symbol, it is so hurtful to the majority."
More of Gore's sycophantism returned when a protester sneaked onstage to ask the candidates about
global warming. While Smiley tried to ignore her, Gore noted that he "saw them demonstrating outside,
and actually it's a pretty good question. I brought up global
warming about 10 times during the debates that we've had. And it has
never come up, and I actually think they've got a pretty good point."
The candidates were also asked about lunkheaded Atlanta
Braves relief pitcher John Rocker -- who made a number of bigoted
comments in a magazine interview and has been forced by his team to
undergo counseling as well as meeting with former Atlanta Mayor Andy
Young and baseball great Hank Aaron.
Bradley drew applause by saying, "I don't know John Rocker and I
don't want to know John Rocker," and contrasted the Braves' locker
room with the racially harmonious one of the early 1970s New York Knicks.
"This would not have happened had [Rocker been with] an organization
and a team attuned to the kind of things that he said," Bradley said.
"When I was on the Knicks, one of my jobs was when there was a white
player that came on the team who didn't quite understand, used the
wrong words, I took him over to the side and said, 'Look, that
doesn't work on this team. If you want to be on this team, you
respect everybody.' If that had happened on the Atlanta Braves, you
wouldn't have had John Rocker."
Gore gave another compassionate liberal response, complete with a half cup of Southern Baptist preacher and a full cup of political grease. "I spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church
at the invitation of Coretta Scott King on Martin Luther King Day,
and while I was there I spoke to Andy Young, and I was very impressed
with what Andy Young and Hank Aaron had to say after their meeting
with Mr. Rocker.
"I think that if he has more meetings like that, and impresses more
people the way he impressed them, he's going to be on the road toward
receiving the forgiveness that he needs eventually," Gore said.
"America is all about redemption and part of the message of Dr. King
is to love your enemies and plant the seeds of reconciliation in
their hearts. For some, racism may be a form of mental illness. For
others, it is simply a manifestation of evil that they have the
ability to transcend and overcome with love, forgiveness and
The two even agreed on that ever-salient issue of giving ex-cons the right to vote. In a highlight sure to resurface during the next Republican presidential debate, both Gore and Bradley supported the right of some ex-cons to vote. The answers came in response to a question
shrouded in wrapping paper about the "1.4 million African-American males [who are] are unable to vote in this nation" because "Section 2 of the 14th Amendment allows the states
the right to disenfranchise convicted felons."
"I think that the definition of what kind of crimes automatically
fall in the category that triggers that exclusion from the franchise
could well benefit from a fresh review," Gore said.
"If someone is in on a nonviolent offense, and comes out and is able
to go straight for two years, three years, I think that that person
ought to be able to wipe his record clean and start the day anew,"
All the way out in Des Moines, I could swear I heard the gentle
whirring of the Republican National Committee's VCRs.
As he did in their last match-up, Gore trotted
out some human props to put actual faces on those whom meanie Bill
Bradley's plans will hurt. The timing was a bit odd, however, as
O'Brien had just asked Bradley if he thought Gore's charges that his
health care proposal would disproportionately hurt African-Americans
and Latinos "border[ed] on race baiting." Bradley said no, though he
did think the charges "tend to divide people," and right on cue Gore
asked an African-American mother and child and a Latina mother and
child, to stand so Bradley could see the Medicaid recipients who
would be hurt if his health care proposal became law.
"Gracias," Gore thanked the madre.
Perhaps mindful of charges that his past dismissals of Gore's
political tactics have come across as condescending and brusque,
Bradley pleasantly shook his head.
"This is a song we've played a number of times in this campaign," he
said. "Everyone who has Medicaid now will have access to health care,
but they'll have access to health care in a federal system, which is
the same system that provides health for our congressmen and
senators." Arguing that Medicaid isn't the great program
Washingtonians like Gore take it to be, Bradley noted, "If you want to
get dental care, in the city of Des Moines there are two dentists who
accept Medicaid patients. That's not good enough."
Though Gore used Bradley's health care proposal to paint him as cold
and insensitive, Bradley didn't use race-related ammo at his
disposal. In the past, Bradley has taken Gore to task for the Clinton
administration's welfare reform bill, which Bradley voted against,
saying it harmed poor women and children. The Bradley campaign has
also distributed a quote from former Clinton aide George
Stephanopoulos' book "All Too Human" in which Gore is described as heading an
internal White House task force that recommended that the
administration oppose affirmative action.
He did, however, let Gore have it after Gore promised that "the first
day of the Gore presidency I would issue an executive order to ban
"You know, Al," Bradley said, "I know that you would issue an order
to end racial profiling if you were president of the United States.
But we have a president now. You serve with him. I want you to walk
down that hallway, walk into his office and say: 'Sign this executive
"I don't think President Bill Clinton needs a lecture from Bill
Bradley about how to stand up and fight for African-Americans and
Latinos in this country," Gore replied tersely.
"It's one thing to talk the talk," Gore charged. "It's another thing
to walk the walk." Gore pointed out the presence of Newark Mayor
Sharpe James in the audience. "He's here today, and he's supporting
me because President Clinton and I have helped him with racial
profiling," Gore said. "And you can ask him his reasons why he's made
I did. James, the African-American four-term mayor, started out
opening mail for Bradley in his satellite office in Newark in 1979
and worked for the senator for five years. James now supports Gore
because, as he said to me after the event, as a senator, "Bill was a
talker, not a doer. He felt that a U.S. senator should not be
involved in local issues. He felt he was above all that. He wanted to
do visionary issues -- writing that tax book, traveling the world,
being a visionary."
Calling James "irrelevant," Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser said that
the mayor has a political ax to grind and referred me to a Newark
Star-Ledger column from month in which James and New Jersey
Rep. Bob Menendez -- another Gore supporter -- are described as backing
Gore childishly, because Bradley "dissed" them.
Onstage, Gore was all too eager to point out Herman and the rainbow coalition of administration hacks who came to represent. There was the
intolerable Menendez, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson,
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. Both this chorus line of pols
and Gore's now reliably solid if uninspired debate performances,
however, show that the exercise the Bradley rivalry has given him
has not been in vain. He's a pro.
When African-American physician
Dr. Paula Mahone asked about minority representation at medical
schools, the ever-briefed vice president immediately realized the
doctor's claim to fame and thanked her. (She delivered the McCaughey
septuplets in 1997; the McCaughey parents, incidentally, announced their support for Gary Bauer earlier this week.)
But the top local Democrat had praise for both candidates. "They both did extremely well," said Rob Tully, director of the Iowa
Democratic Party. "They're both good on minority issues. This debate
really wasn't so much about disagreements as much as it was an
opportunity for these two gentlemen to talk early on about these
issues" -- issues that, because of the snow-white ethnic makeups of
Iowa and New Hampshire residents, generally don't get much heed.
Tully pointed out that however small the state's minority population
might be, Iowa has more than its share of crack babies and crumbling
schools, and a disproportionately imprisoned black population.
That Bradley scores equally with Gore on these issues might mean
precious little come caucus and primary day. According to Ron Lester,
a Democratic African-American pollster unaffiliated with wither
campaign, the African-American vote is expected to go for Gore in a
"Black voters don't really know Bradley," Lester says. "And they
know Gore very well." According to a poll by the Joint Center for
Political and Economic Studies, among African-American voters Gore
has favorable ratings of 77 percent, and unfavorables of just 7
percent. Much of this is because of Gore's affiliation with Clinton,
Lester says, who among black voters is unprecedentedly popular for a
After the debate, Harvard professor Cornel West, a Bradley supporter,
slammed Gore for only trotting out his friendship with Clinton at
this one, minority-related, debate. "To wrap himself up in the cloak
of Clinton for the minority community" while distancing himself from
Clinton in front of the mainstream "is quite telling," West charged,
"and it is not a symbol of good leadership."
But West's rant probably won't matter much, Lester says, alluding to Gore's strong lead among African-American voters. "Black voters tends to be a very loyal voting block."