Face a hurdle in New York's primary next...

DOES BILL CLINTON

April 02, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

DOES BILL CLINTON face a hurdle in New York's primary next Tuesday that has to do not with his character but with his voice? Andrea Mitchell of NBC reports that many New Yorkers are put off by his accent.

I know I should rise to the occasion and say something noble about how America has matured beyond such regional prejudice blah blah blah, but it would be hypocritical. I myself could never vote for a candidate with a New York accent. I respect Walter Mondale above most politicians I've known in my lifetime, but in 1984, every time I heard Geraldine Ferraro's Queens, Nuwyawk squawk, the Reagan-Bush ticket looked better and better.

This anti-New York ear prejudice is and always has been widespread. As Al Smith once said, "let's look at the record." Smith was a New Yorker who won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928. In earlier years he might have done okay, but "radd-ddyo," as he pronounced it, had been invented. Americans listened to his sidewalks-of-New-York speeches and voted overwhelmingly for Herbert Hoover. Al carried only eight states -- six in the South, where most Democrats were too poor to own a radio.

Most American voters would not vote for a Democrat who could win a New York presidential primary.

"Most Americans? Come on, Theo," you say?

Yes, and I mean it. No New York Democratic primary choice has ever been elected president. I may kid you, I may err, but I never lie. Let's look at the record.

Michael Dukakis won the New York Democratic primary in 1988, and he wasn't elected president. Mondale won it in 1984, and he wasn't. Teddy Kennedy won it in 1980, and he wasn't. Before that New York didn't list presidential candidates' names on the primary ballot. (The Democrat who won the most delegates in the 1976 primary was Henry Jackson, not Jimmy Carter, who also had a drawl problem -- and who was elected president.)

The reason the nation rejects New York winners is not just sensitive ears. Many Americans don't think of New York as the real America. As Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) put it in "Annie Hall": "Don't you see, the rest of the country looks on New York like we're left-wing, Jewish, Communist, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here." Most Americans don't want as president the choice of such a constituency.

To make things worse, to win in New York, with its raging ethnic blocs, a Democrat must appeal for votes in a most unpresidential way. For example, this week Bill Clinton, a Baptist, told a Jewish audience in Brooklyn that he would maintain a kosher kitchen in the White House. Even if he was just kidding, as his aides later said, it was still a form of pandering.

Reminds me of the story, probably apocryphal, about Nelson Rockefeller (also a Baptist) pledging to a similar audience, "Elect me, and I'll have myself circumcised -- again."

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