Filling The Political Void

From the start, he displayed a calming sense of involvement in the agony of Los Angeles. He visited the bedsides of hospitalized riot victims. In interviews, he preached compassion-and respect for law and order-to Crips and Bloods and Simi Valley suburbanites. He hosted a cathartic "town meeting" on television where Americans of all backgrounds could voice their feelings and fears.

This healing presence wasn't a politician or a civic leader, but Arsenio Hall, TV star in a neon-colored suit. "He showed more leadership than any of the elected officials," said John Swaney, a radio talk-show host in the city. "He was one of the few leaders who came forward early, and one of the few that people would listen to."

The Los Angeles riots made politicians, from mayors to presidential candidates, seem like irrelevant bystanders. Leaders of traditional civil-rights organizations looked just as out of touch. Instead, sports heroes, actors, musicians and talk-show hosts took to late-night television, MTV and rap-music videos to express the anger and hope that most pols seemed too timid or tone-deaf to voice convincingly. Local activists were often equally eloquent. The prominence of Arsenio and friends underscored the public's exasperation with traditional politics. "Unfortunately, most Americans don't look to national politicians for moral leadership anymore," said David Wilhelm, Bill Clinton's campaign manager. "That's what we want to do-what we have to do-in this campaign."

George Bush and Bill Clinton walked burned-out streets last week searching for moral high ground and for ways to reclaim the role of "leader" for the despised vocation of national politics. It won't be easy. Neither man had made the survival of the cities the core of his campaign. And both are lifelong politicians whose antennae, if anything, are too sensitive: they tend to be immobilized by the contending voices they hear, especially angry ones.

In L.A., the president photo-opped his way into proximity to real people. He listened-still the first task of leadership. He stumbled through a riot-ravaged shopping center. He met and prayed with black and Korean community leaders. His voice cracked with emotion as he acknowledged the nation's shame at the deadliest domestic upheaval since the Civil War. "We are embarrassed by interracial violence and prejudice," he said. "We are ashamed ... We've got to fight for justice and equality."

But words spoke louder than actions. Buffeted by a bitter struggle among his aides, Bush offered a minimalist, warmed-over menu of self-help proposals, plus a modest new ($19 million) program to fight crime and foster education in selected inner-city neighborhoods. Anything more sweeping, White House aides had argued, would highlight three previous years of inattention to domestic affairs. Ironically, some of his campaign advisers had fought for more dramatic initiatives. "Suburbanites want Bush to do something before the problems come to their neighborhoods," said one campaign aide. "It's the moral thing to do, the right thing to do and the smart thing to do politically."

Not the Bush thing to do. He moved through L.A. with Jack Kemp, the hyperkinetic housing and urban development secretary, at his side. But, unlike Kemp, Bush is no "bleeding-heart conservative." He doesn't believe that government-even supply-side government--can do much to solve social ills. Family, church and local schools are his answers. And Bush was reluctant to stray too far from the traditional Republican reaction to urban violence. Since the Harlem riots in 1964, GOP presidential candidates have been law-and-order men above all, mining fear in the suburbs for votes against the "Them" of the cities. In Los Angeles the president took time to honor that tradition, posing with rows of men in blue and decrying "wanton lawlessness." He did so even though it's now clear that the LAPD reacted too slowly and timidly, perhaps making a bad situation worse.

Clinton seemed more comfortable than Bush in the post-riot world. But not much. In low-key, somber appearances, he played up his roots in the rural South at the dawn of the civil-rights era, in which he had seen firsthand, and come to despise, the depredations of racial discrimination and poverty. The unrest was an opening for a candidate whose message, above all, is one of community. But Clinton, who had launched his campaign as a moderate Democrat eager to uproot "brain dead" politics in Washington, largely agreed with Bush that massive new spending on the cities was not the answer. He and his aides remained wary of joining with Democrats in Congress to push major urban initiatives. Instead, Clinton stressed his own well-thought-out--and politically low-risk "self-help" agenda of national service, tougher welfare rules and business tax incentives, none designed exclusively for the inner cities. He, too, stressed law and order, touting his plan for "community-based policing"--a fancy phrase for putting more cops on the beat. As if to underscore the tough-guy theme, he flew back to Arkansas to deny clemency to a convicted cop killer.

The L.A. riots also exposed AfricanAmericans' doubts about their own "national" leadership. The list of Washington-based black leaders Bush summoned to meet with him before his trip could have come from a 20-year-old Rolodex. It is a generation of leaders that rose through the civil-rights movement and may have lost touch with a younger generation of African-Americans. They're "several steps behind the times," says University of Colorado professor Manning Marable. Trapped by their own rhetoric, they can't renounce the politics of blame and dependence on government, says Eddie Williams, who heads Washington's Joint Center for Political Studies, a black think tank. "The leadership is unwilling to push the notion of personal responsibility out of fear that the government will do less," says Williams.

The search for a handy short-list of national leaders itself seems out of date; Black America no longer speaks with one voice. This year's Guide to Black Organizations published by Philip Morris lists 272 groups. Entries reflect diverse concerns-from the Alliance of Black Entertainment Technicians to the Action Alliance of Black Managers. New faces are emerging on the local scene, from former Black Panther Bobby Rush, a congressional shoo-in from Chicago, to Emanuel Cleaver, the popular, unity-minded mayor of Kansas City, Mo. Black leaders, elected locally, think in new strategic terms and across racial lines, says Prof. Wilbur Rich of Wellesley College. He cites Mayors Norm Rice of Seattle, Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore and Michael White of Cleveland as examples. In Atlanta last week, Mayor Maynard Jackson boldly defended Korean shop owners with a message of African-American self-help. "We ought to watch what they're doing and do more of it ourselves," Jackson said. "They take care of their own people."

Meanwhile, the Diogenean search for a candid, can-do national leader continued. Cracks began to appear in Ross Perot's claim. Though he portrays himself as a billionaire babe in the woods, Nixon administration files in the National Archives showed him to have been something else: a politically sophisticated businessman who wheedled his way into the Oval Office to earn access for his company, which did extensive business with the government. And a Dallas editor accused Perot of having threatened in 1989 to expose the private life of one of the paper's reporters-a charge Perot vehemently denied.

In Los Angeles, at first, voters were left to look for inspiration to Arsenio and other pop icons: actor Edward James Olmos, who wielded a broom and a Dumpster in South-Central L.A.; or Oprah Winfrey, who has her own longstanding education crusade, or Public Enemy, whose savage rap videos warned of urban rage long before the "firebell" in the L.A. night. "Pop culture is a much bigger deal than politics today," said Clinton adviser James Carville. The youngest voters are the most tuned in to pop culture-and the most turned off by traditional politics, says Steve Barr, copresident of "Rock the Vote," a music-industry voter-registration campaign. "There's not a national political leader who shows up as more than a blip on the psyches of kids from 18 to 24," says Barr.

Pop stars' gifts of expression encourage public feedback-a useful skill in an angry time. But their prominence may be the ultimate delusion on the rubble-strewn road to "empowerment." "Just applauding and getting emotional doesn't bring results in the real world," says Virginia Democratic chairman Paul Goldman. "You still need elected leaders for that." As Arsenio himself would say, it's time for the nation's politicians-and voters-to "get busy."