Clinton returns prove black vote is not bloc vote

MICHAEL OLESKER

March 08, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Larry Gibson wishes to make himself heard, and so he raises his voice, a thin little normal voice attempting to become a tenor profundo in the midst of human clatter and television sets blaring and music so loud you feel as if you could float across it.

''Listen to these numbers,'' he hollers at a man whose ear is maybe eight inches from Gibson's vocal cords.

The numbers are coming in for Bill Clinton. The numbers come out of Baltimore, and they are going against the tide. Paul Tsongas is winning Maryland on this presidential primary night, but in the city of Baltimore it is Clinton winning and winning heavily in black neighborhoods. ''A victory for the mayor?'' Gibson is asked.

It's a natural enough question. Kurt L. Schmoke endorsed Clinton, squired him around town, recorded radio commercials for him, rallied the troops to get out the vote for him. And now

Gibson, the mayor's top political adviser, could be expected to take a few surrogate bows.

But, in the heart of all this noise at Clinton headquarters on Eager Street last Tuesday night, Larry Gibson opened his mouth, and he spoke very loudly so that every syllable could be understood clearly, and he said nothing at all about Kurt Schmoke. ''This,'' he declared, ''is the beginning of our liberation from Jesse Jackson.''

He stepped back for a moment now, to make certain the words had been understood. The thought is loaded with all kinds of emotional baggage, and Gibson knew it, knew better than most the sensitivities of race and of language, and of the sensitivities surrounding any criticism of Jesse Jackson.

''For two straight presidential elections,'' Gibson said now, leaning in close once again so he could be heard over the noise, ''Jesse Jackson seemed to go out of his way to damage the Democrats. This time, instead of leadership, he's decided to play no constructive role at all.''

He stepped back again, to make certain his words were understood, and then he leaned back in and shouted against the surrounding noise.

''This myth that Jesse Jackson determines the black vote,'' he said, ''is being burst here and in Georgia. It's just a media myth, that's all.''

In Georgia, Bill Clinton was winning his first presidential primary. He won it easily, and he won it with large black support. In Maryland, while losing to Tsongas, Clinton was winning solidly in black neighborhoods around the state.

And he was winning despite tension with Jesse Jackson that at least one candidate -- Paul Tsongas -- tried to exploit.

It was tension based on a misunderstanding. Sitting in a South Carolina TV studio, unaware that microphones were turned on, Clinton was told Jackson had broken an agreement and endorsed Tom Harkin for president.

It must have felt like a body blow. Not only does Clinton have strong credentials in the black community, but the political muscle of Jesse Jackson has always been understood to be that of a colossus among black voters. In the TV studio, Clinton, barely controlling his emotions, quickly accused Jackson of ''back stabbing''' and ''double-crossing.''

Later, truth arrived. There was no Jackson endorsement, but it was too late for Clinton to take back his words. He hadn't been on the air when he said them, but somebody had caught his outburst on tape and immediately spread them across the country.

Clinton issued an apology. Jackson, seeming wounded, stayed aloof. And Paul Tsongas began running radio spots, declaring:

''He didn't wait for the facts. No. Bill Clinton didn't want to find out if it were true. He just attacked. The man he attacked? Jesse Jackson. Reverend Jesse Jackson. Clinton, before he got all the facts, accused Reverend Jackson of quote, 'back stabbing, dirty double-crossing.' ''

It was a cheap shot -- not only at Clinton, but at blacks. The Tsongas people assumed they were too dumb to see through it, that they'd instinctively turn on anybody perceived as criticizing Jackson.

On Eager Street on primary night, Larry Gibson walked around Clinton headquarters to show the city returns to precinct workers. But his remarks brought back a conversation from an LTC earlier election night, a few years back.

The names aren't important here, but the skin colors are. A white candidate, highly qualified, had run against a black candidate, not so qualified. Every white political analyst had conceded the black vote to the black candidate.

Instead, a black majority had gone for the white candidate. And, on that election night, here was Larry Gibson with a sardonic smile spreading across his face. ''You know,'' he said, ''white people really are racist.''

''Why is that?'' he was asked.

''Because they think black people are stupid,'' he said. ''They think they can't tell the difference between a good candidate and a bad one, and they'll just vote skin color.''

In the current campaign for president, there are no black candidates. So all the white analysts assume black voters look to Jesse Jackson for a sign. But here was Larry Gibson, election night, and he was saying that Jesse Jackson can give signals all night long. He is not invincible, Gibson said. Black voters can make up their own minds, he said.

And even a cheap little shot in a radio commercial, delivered in Jackson's name, isn't going to make a difference.

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