Elephants of a different color

They may not be numerous yet, but black Republicans feel they've got something to shout about -- sort of.

Published February 19, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

According to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, only 4 percent of African-Americans are openly Republican. At the awards reception for the National Council of Black Republicans Wednesday, a small collection of old soldiers, rising regional stars and campaign players tried to make the case for a change.

Though the group's honorees had weaned themselves from the African-American community's fidelity to the Democratic Party, they were all still clearly in touch with the black preacher-as-politician tradition. Speakers leaned very little on notes, cited the scriptures lavishly and got to the point in their own sweet time.

Apparently being a black Republican still requires a pretty thorough explanation. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., as the sole black Republican in Congress, knows how to deliver that message. Watts emceed the event with a hopeful yet defensive tone that the other speakers echoed. Watts cited his family members as an inspiration for his politics, though his father once said, "A black man voting for the Republicans makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Col. Sanders."

"How could my baby be a Republican?" presidential candidate Alan Keyes quoted his late mother as saying. Keyes was visibly fatigued from the previous evening's Republican debate in South Carolina. But even dead tired and sapped of the fire that he's used to plague his rivals for the presidential nomination, Keyes was articulate and inspiring, almost making you regret that he's got less than no chance to win.

Though Keyes trumped all in the oratory category, the apple of everyone's eye was clearly Condoleeza Rice, former Bush administration national security director and one of the team of tutors now working to make George W. Bush seem smarter than he is. Rice remarked that her own conversion to the Republican camp came when an affable Southern governor turned president displayed a stunning lack of foreign policy know-how.

"President Jimmy Carter, responding to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, said that he had learned more about the Soviets that day than he had known in all his life." Carter's ignorance prompted Rice to conclude that he "didn't deserve to be president." However, when questioned about Gov. Bush's lack of international experience, Rice smiled brightly, talked about Bush's "values" and "heart," and finished up by saying, "The president of the United States doesn't need to be his own secretary of state."

(Translation: That's a job better left to Rice.)

While most of the black Republican speakers defended the GOP on social issues, the final speaker at the event, former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, came equipped with a big wet blanket. "I am ashamed of some of the policies of the party," Brooke said to the suddenly silent crowd. "Conservatism unfortunately has come to mean opposition to civil rights, to reformers, opposition to campaign finance reform, to urban Americans, opposition to new programs ... which would improve the quality of their lives." He went on to slam the party's environmental record, its neglect of the poor and even its stand on abortion. Brooke urged the GOP to return to advocating a small government approach without all the fire and brimstone.

Brooke's rant considerably dimmed the crowd's spirits, and moved racial division back onto the front burner. His pro-choice line got scant but enthusiastic applause, and most of the black attendees clapped for his calls to end race-baiting, though the coterie of white Republicans curiously concentrated at the front tables sat stone-faced throughout.

This tension carried over into the brief post-lunch news conference. When asked whether Bush has squandered his chance for black voters with his tacit support for Confederate flag-wavers and his visit to Bob Jones University, Watts wouldn't stand by his man. "I'm not here to defend George Bush," said Watts. He went on to condemn the anti-interracial dating policy at Bob Jones University, but not Bush's willingness to go there. "We shouldn't isolate any venue," he said. "If I was asked to come and speak to the Ku Klux Klan, I would go."

Maybe, if Bush continues his shift rightward in order to secure the GOP nomination, he and Watts will end up going there together.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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