Bill Clinton plays some of Jesse Jackson's tunes ON POLITICS


March 16, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

DETROIT -- Gov. Bill Clinton stood before an overflow congregation at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church here the other day and offered himself as Daniel in the lion's den -- in his fashion.

His listeners all but purred as he told them how the day before he had gone to Macomb County, famed as the white suburban Detroit enclave where in the 1960s and early 1970s Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama successfully played on racial fears, and where Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s benefited from them.

Clinton reported how, in this home of "Reagan Democrats," he had said "something politicians don't normally say in Macomb County. I said I want you folks to come home to the Democratic Party. I know why you left and what you thought, and I want to tell you that we didn't do right by Middle America for a while, but I have a program that will restore the middle class. . . . You have rewarded Ronald Reagan and George Bush and they have punished you."

Then he told them, Clinton said, that he couldn't get the restoration job done "until all of you folks decide that race is not the problem." The church congregation applauded as Clinton went on to say that he had told the audience in Macomb, as he was now telling them, that an end to racial strife was an essential ingredient to changing the party and restoring the health of the nation.

Just as he had asked his listeners in Macomb County to "reach out across geographical and social lines" with a pledge to end racial division, Clinton made the same request to the black zTC congregation, eliciting more enthusiastic applause.

The only trouble with this carefully crafted bit of politics was that the typical Reagan Democrat -- blue-collar and conservative -- was not conspicuously present the day before in the distinctly upper-income audience that came not to some street corner but to Macomb Community College to hear the Arkansas governor.

Nevertheless, the two appearances taken together demonstrated Clinton's determination to preach racial harmony -- and to solidify his support among black voters at the same time.

Until Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa dropped out of the race, the leading black political figure in Detroit, Mayor Coleman Young, had been backing Harkin. Now he is not endorsing anyone, but he did send a personal representative to the church to convey the message that he is "wishing well" the man who may be on his way to the Democratic nomination.

With Michigan's large labor vote likewise cut loose by Harkin's withdrawal, the black vote becomes increasingly important to Clinton here. He is bidding for the labor vote as well, but the fact Arkansas is a right-to-work state and Clinton supports fast-track trade negotiations with Mexico -- both anathema to organized labor -- diminishes his chances to be heir to Harkin's labor strength.

Clinton before a black congregation comes off as a sort of Jesse Jackson without the thunder and lightning. He knows how to touch the right chords to draw the calls of "Amen" and "That's right" that are standard responses in many black churches, and his references to his understanding and handling of race relations in his native state go over well.

In both Macomb County and at the black church, Clinton also emphasized his theme that individual responsibility must accompany empowerment of and opportunity for the poor through governmental policies.

The pastor of the church, the Rev. Odell Jones, himself an Arkansas native, introduced his guest by pronouncing that "Bill Clinton is not a Southerner, Bill Clinton is an American." Clinton then confessed that Jones was part of an "Arkansas conspiracy" behind his campaign, and he proceeded to introduce members of his campaign team who also hailed from his native state.

At the close of his speech on unity and change, Clinton quoted scripture (Galatians 6:9) from memory: "Let us not grow weary in doing good. For in this season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart." Then he stepped back and stood with his arms around two church leaders as the church organ played a hymn. Jesse Jackson couldn't have done it much better.

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