Although the performance Monday night at Harlem's Apollo Theater was not a musical, there's little doubt which song Al Gore and Bill Bradley were singing up there on the stage: Billy Paul's signature '70s tune, "Am I Black Enough for You?"
Watching the two contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination debate is usually a painful experience (one veteran journalist remarked recently that she'd "rather have a root canal than sit through another one"), but this event was perversely entertaining in that the issue being debated seemed to be which of these white Ivy League grads with kids in elite private schools can show that he feels the pain of black America the most.
It was a remarkable change of pace for a national political culture that just last week was consumed by the spectacle of the Republican candidates pandering to white people who like to fly the Confederate flag in South Carolina. This, by contrast, was a 90-minute debate driven by the concerns of minorities and poor people. All of the questions (save those by journalists) were asked by people of color, and they were different from the usual political questions -- for example, the questions about crime focused on the plight of the people being arrested.
Bradley stated that he would issue an executive order to eliminate racial profiling. "White Americans can no longer deny the plight of black Americans," he concluded, to uproarious applause. The shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York, he said, "reflects racial profiling in the sense that seeps into the mind of someone, so that he sees a wallet in the hands of a white man as a wallet but a wallet in the hands of a black man as a gun."
Gore did him one better, saying he'd pass a law outlawing racial profiling, whose effects extend into banking, insurance, schooling and people's hearts. He concluded with a lyrical coup de grbce, declaring with the intonation of a Southern preacher that he was going to put "as much energy in ed-u-ca-tion as we do into in-car-cer-a-tion." (Gore may have become a bit too fond of this rhyming scheme. Later, responding to a question about whether African-Americans are owed reparations for slavery, he roared: "I believe the best rep-ar-a-tion is a good ed-u-ca-tion -- and affirmative action.")
Bradley charged back, complaining that President Clinton should have outlawed racial profiling and arguing that Gore led an effort to end affirmative action at the federal level. It's on Page 208 of George Stephanopolous' book, he noted, and on cue, Bradley's aides dutifully handed out press releases to reporters to back this up. And, Bradley asserted, Gore voted to maintain the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory schools like South Carolina's Bob Jones University, which, as every political junkie in the country now knows, bans interracial dating.
"That is a phony and scurrilous charge," yelped Gore, who went on to accuse Bradley of voting against affirmative action for minority-owned broadcasting companies in the Senate -- prompting loud hoots from the audience.
This debate was a last stand of sorts for Bradley, as even some of his supporters acknowledged Monday night. He is in serious danger of being blown away in the March 7 primaries. Here in his almost back yard of New York, two recent polls place him at least 15 percentage points behind Gore among Democratic voters around the state.
"He's got to win New York to stay in it," says Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked for the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996. But Sheinkopf sees Bradley's prospects as weak, since most New York politicians are supporting Gore. "Who turns out on March 7? Organization Democrats. It's not a normal election day. If Bradley gets trounced badly in New York, then there isn't much left of Bradley. He's pinning his hopes on getting a black vote, but I don't see how he gets that."
Indeed, the incumbent vice president has gotten most of the endorsements of African-American elected officials, particularly in New York City, a point he gleefully pointed out Monday night.
"Do you think that they all have such poor judgment, Sen. Bradley?" he asked.
Ooh! Low blow! Low blow!
"What I think is they don't know your record as a conservative Democrat," Bradley responded. More shrieks and boos. "They don't know that you voted five times over three years for tax exemptions for schools that discriminate on the basis of race."
Uh-oh. Bad move.
Traces of a grin -- no, make that a sneer -- spread across Gore's face. A ripe opportunity had just presented itself. "Y'know what, in my experience, Black Caucus is pretty savvy," he said. "They know a lot more than you think they know." An explosion of yelling and applause rose from the crowd.
He wasn't done yet.
"The Congressional Black Caucus is not out there being led around. They know what the score is, and they know their brothers and sisters in New Jersey said you were never for them walking the walk."
So, despite the urgency of the occasion for Bradley, it didn't seem as if he'd won. Near the end of the evening, he grasped for a reliable portion of his playbook: He talked of his days as a rookie for the New York Knicks, and of getting offers to do endorsements that should have gone to his black teammates.
Being a strong president who wants to deal with race means "sometimes telling white Americans what they don't want to hear," said Bradley, who cited what he calls "white-skin privilege" -- a term that attracted much attention when Bradley used it early in his campaign. Rarely has a mainstream candidate spoken so candidly about race. Bradley, it seems, was actually going to build his campaign around race and the continuing mistreatment of people of color by white people.
But that theme, like the rest of Bradley's campaign, just never caught fire, not even after his 90 minutes at the Apollo Theater.