What Bill Can Do For Al

Late last year Bill Clinton was kicking back with a group of high-powered African-Americans in the Washington living room of Ernie Green, the president's old pal from Arkansas and one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in 1957. Over canapes and coffee, the group heaped praise on Clinton. When talk turned to the 2000 race, the mood cooled. Everyone pledged to support Vice President Al Gore, but several wondered aloud whether black voters would embrace him as eagerly as they had Clinton. "African-Americans respect Gore," says Bob Johnson, CEO of Black Entertainment Television and a friend of the vice president's, who was there that night. "But he doesn't have the Clinton style, the Clinton moves."

It's an impression Gore is trying hard to change. African-Americans are crucial to his chances this year. They make up a critical percentage of Democratic primary voters in Southern states like Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina--enough to swing the nomination in his tight race against Bill Bradley. Gore is actively reaching out. He made a point of hiring a black woman, former Jesse Jackson adviser Donna Brazile, as his campaign manager. He evokes the civil-rights record of his father, a U.S. senator who taught his son about racism by showing him the old slave shackles in the basement of a neighbor's house. In impassioned speeches, Gore has railed against hate crimes, racial profiling and police brutality. In November he denounced discrimination in remarks at the Memphis church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon.

But all hasn't been smooth. Brazile recently suggested that the GOP uses prominent African-Americans as political props. "The Republicans bring out [Gen.] Colin Powell and [Oklahoma Rep.] J. C. Watts because they have no program, no policy," she told a reporter. "They'd rather take pictures with black children than feed them." Last week both men fired off angry letters to Gore. Powell accused Brazile of "playing the polarizing 'race card'," and said he was "disappointed and offended." Watts called the remarks "racist" and "appalling." Gore tried to calm the waters by calling Powell a "great hero," but he stuck by Brazile. "She's doing a great job," he said.

Part of that job is to help Gore round up endorsements from black leaders in his party. He quietly began seeking the blessing of black intellectuals back in 1995, in a series of intimate "issues" dinners at the vice-presidential mansion. Among the guests: conservative author Shelby Steele, historian John Hope Franklin and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. So far, the strategy appears to be working. A recent AP poll showed Gore leading Bradley among African-American voters 57 to 24 percent.

But Gore's rivals aren't willing to cede him the black vote. Bradley himself has been aggressively pursuing African-Americans. He speaks movingly about his experiences as a white basketball player in a largely black NBA, and has won endorsements from black celebrities, including Spike Lee and Def Jam founder Russell Simmons. George W. Bush, too, is playing for African-American votes. He's visited Harlem and Watts, unusual stomping grounds for GOP hopefuls, where he sounds his "compassionate conservative" themes.

The vice president's greatest weapon may be Clinton himself, whose popularity among black voters recently hit 87 percent--nearly double the president's support among whites. Clinton has introduced Gore to prominent black Southern ministers and schmoozed activists like Jesse Jackson. At the meeting in Ernie Green's living room, Clinton jumped to the vice president's defense when some of the guests grumbled about Gore. "You guys don't know the half of what Al Gore has done on race," he lectured, one participant recalls. "Everything I've accomplished, he's accomplished, too." It's old-fashioned coattails politics--but Gore, struggling to connect, knows praise from the boss will only get him so far.

What Bill Can Do For Al | News