WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Rodney King, who shall be known for the rest of his life as the black motorist whose beating by Los Angeles police officers touched off riots, made more sense than all of television's mighty pundits when he called for calm amid the chaos.
''People, I just want to say,'' he stammered, nervously choking on the words, ''you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?''
His trembling voice expressed the key question facing America on a day newscasters and commentators were calling a defining moment for America. We've been through urban riots before. We tried, as a nation, to fool ourselves into believing we could make the threat go away by putting a lid on it. When will it boil over again? Can we make progress in the simple task of behaving decently with each other? Can we get along?
Getting along seemed far from the minds of media-selected spokespersons parading across my television screen while riot ashes cooled.
Representing black America, I saw firebrands like Al Sharpton and rappers Chuck D., KRS-One and Sister Souljah. All of them were angry at whites for victimizing blacks.
Representing white opinion, I saw firebrands like presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan. He was angry at blacks for victimizing whites.
I also heard the voices of one or two (since their identities were concealed, it was hard to tell if they were the same woman) members of the jury that exonerated the police officers in the videotaped King beating.
The jurors sounded fearful and confused, the sort of folks who fled to the suburbs to escape the threat to life and limb represented by a big black man like Rodney King who wouldn't lie down while police shouted, hit and kicked him.
Can we get along?
Media tend to put the most incendiary voices of both sides into the spotlight, but I like to think most Americans are somewhere in the middle, yearning for protection and willing to work against crime, while looking sincerely to Washington for leadership in salvaging our long-ignored and disinvested inner cities.
Eventually we have to ask the same question Rodney King asks: Can we all get along?
After all, the middle-class whites and blacks who fled to the suburbs after the riots of the '60s don't have a lot of escape routes left.
''Please, we can get along here,'' Mr. King pleaded. ''I mean, we're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out. Let's try to beat it. Let's try to work it out.''
Working it out wasn't on the minds of politicians who stood over the ashes of mayhem and pointed fingers of blame at the other party.
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater tried to blame the riots on the liberal social programs of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter in the '60s and '70s. But when reporters pressed him to name one or two, he couldn't.
''I don't have a list with me,'' he said.
Fitzwater correctly listed good Bush-sponsored initiatives the Democrat-dominated Congress has ignored: home ownership for the disadvantaged, creation of urban enterprise zones, and public-housing rehabilitation, just to name a few.
Fitz is right. There's plenty of blame to go around. The dirty little Democratic secret is that they would rather kill a good idea than let a Republican president get credit for helping the poor. No wonder Americans are fed up with Washington.
Can we get along? Can't we do what the black conservative Robert Woodson, director of Washington's Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, has suggested, judge ideas not by what's Right or what's Left but by what works?
Maybe there's hope. Spurred by the riots, President Bush has rescued Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, the only Cabinet member who has a sense of common ground with grass-roots black leaders, from political Siberia. Together, if Mr. Bush wishes, they can use the riots as an opportunity to embarrass the Democrats into going along with what Mr. Kemp calls a ''conservative war on poverty.''
After earlier wars against poverty, inflation and drugs, I'm getting a little weary of combat metaphors. But it's worth a try.
The King video and ''not guilty'' verdict snapped Americans into a new awareness of what blacks had been saying all along about police power run wild and white indifference to it. The subsequent riots, particularly the televised sight of black mobs ruthlessly beating a couple of innocent white men, was the great white American revenge nightmare come to life: blacks doing to whites what whites historically did to blacks.
After all this, can we get along?
It was encouraging to see a rainbow of volunteers working together to clean up the wreckage and put their community together again. Maybe the rest of the country can learn something from those final images of interracial cooperation in the ashes of chaos. Maybe we can regain a sense of common ground and common purpose.
I hope so. After all, as Rodney King says, we're all stuck here for a while.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.