Bush hopes riots spark concern for law and order

May 06, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is traveling to Los Angeles today to sift through the embers of last week's riots in hopes of rekindling one of his favorite campaign issues: law and order.

The deadly urban violence that followed the Rodney King beating verdict has given Mr. Bush the chance to revive a theme that played a critical role in his 1988 election but was sidetracked last fall by concerns over the economy.

During his two-day visit to Los Angeles, the president may spend much of his time promoting an urban policy agenda that focuses on self-help programs to address the poverty and hopelessness that helped set the city aflame. Some White House officials are eager to have him counter the notion that Democrats have the advantage in dealing with urban problems.

But Mr. Bush has already begun to play on the racial anxieties of white voters, as Republican presidential candidates have done for 25 years.

Yesterday he made a point of telling Republican lawmakers in Washington that the federal government plans to prosecute people who murdered, burned and looted during last week's riots and that it is reviewing videotapes to identify suspects. Such crimes are not usually handled at the federal level, but in this case the Justice Department is helping state and local police find the lawbreakers.

"It's a Republican card," Steven Erie, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego who specializes in urban politics, said of the law-and-order issue. "It always works to their advantage."

White House officials said Mr. Bush will mostly listen to people involved in the effort to rebuild Los Angeles so he can learn what the federal government can do to help. He is scheduled to tour the riot zone and meet with police officers, community leaders, members of the National Guard and officials involved in the relief effort.

Mr. Bush's advisers have been divided on how hard he should push the law-and-order line in response to the riots. One senior campaign adviser, Charles Black, said he expected the president to concentrate mostly on urban problems during this trip and bring up law and order later.

During his term as president, Mr. Bush has placed major emphasis on increasing the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty andmaking it harder for a criminal case to be thrown out on technicalities. He generally opposed gun control but was willing to accept a five-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns last year in return for a larger crime package.

A compromise version of the bill needed only one final vote from the Senate late last fall, when Republicans filibustered it to death because they said it gave too many rights to defendants.

By that time Mr. Bush had long since stopped talking about law and order.

"The issue was dead until a couple of days ago," said Stuart Scheingold, a political science professor at the University of Washington and author of a book titled "The Politics of Street Crime."

"It's an issue that politicians, especially at the national level, tend to focus on to avoid more serious kinds of problems. But the economy was a problem Bush couldn't avoid."

It is still not clear what the political impact of the Los Angeles riots will be and whether they will necessarily work to Mr. Bush's favor.

Some Republicans think the president's best hope would be a balanced approach: Be firm in restoring order but seize the moment to promote an urban package put together by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp that has been languishing for presidential inattention.

"That's the big opportunity he's got here," said David Mason, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation. "Making some L.A. looter the next Willie Horton isn't going to do it."

Mr. Bush's trip to Los Angeles will be a homecoming of sorts. He kicked off his general election campaign there on Labor Day 1988 with a stop at a Los Angeles police picnic. It was one of several attempts he made to curry political favor with Chief Daryl F. Gates, who became a central figure in the King beating case.

Police unions all over the country were featured players in the Bush campaign, which attempted to lure swing voters with the claim that the Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, was "weak on crime."

After Mr. Bush's election, the police, including Chief Gates, remained high-profile visitors to the White House and among those most likely to have their invitations accepted by the commander in chief.

The president has returned to Los Angeles annually during his first term, visiting with Chief Gates at least twice. Two days after the King beating, but before the amateur videotape of it was shown throughout the nation, Mr. Bush honored Chief Gates at a White House ceremony as an "all-American hero."

It was not until two weeks later when calls for Chief Gates' resignation became deafening that Mr. Bush felt moved to comment on the situation. And while he called the tapes of the police officers beating Mr. King "sickening," he said he still believed Mr. Gates was an "exemplary police chief" because of his work in fighting drug problems in the city.

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