What Bush and Clinton missed

Jack L. Levin

July 29, 1992|By Jack L. Levin

GEORGE Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot did not show up at the Mayors' Save Our Cities March on Washington last May 16. (Mr. Clinton did send a message.)

All three presidential candidates found that they had commitments elsewhere, although the mayors had announced the date and place of the rally a year earlier.

Clearly, all three candidates and their handlers had reached the same conclusion: Their chances of election would be improved by keeping their distance. They preferred rhetoric about the plight of the cities (while media and public attention to the Los Angeles riots had not yet evaporated) over supporting the mayors' specific call to move some money immediately from wealthy suburbs to poverty-stricken cities.

Why, the aspirants reasoned, should they appear to favor despairing, needy urbanites over mad-as-hell, tax-rebelling ex-urbanites? The former may be more numerous, but they don't vote or contribute as generously to campaigns.

After all, say practical pols, what do you expect the candidates to do? They just want to avoid the tax-and-spend big-government accusation. They just want to be accepted by an electorate that has been conditioned to have it all, have it now, charge it, and don't worry about paying later.

Do you expect them to self-destruct by pursuing social justice for have-nots who don't count, to persuade and inspire voters to lift the nation's long-range economic and moral health above their own instant gratification, to accept some present hardships and even sacrifice for a better future?

Get real, say the pragmatists: All of that is for losers, like so many Democratic candidates from Adlai Stevenson through Paul Tsongas. All of that requires leadership, courage and commitment. Those qualities in a candidate are rare, but they are not unprecedented.

As a matter of fact, we witnessed such daring and triumphant leadership in Maryland's most successful politician, who proved it was possible to oppose time-honored popular customs and attitudes rooted deeply in ignorance and bigotry, and yet to win elections -- four of them.

Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, was elected twice mayor of Baltimore ('43 to '47 and '64 to '67) and twice governor of $H Maryland ('51 to '59). His ship of state had a motley crew. He held onto the support of Republicans, many of whom vociferously disapproved of his liberal convictions, while he drew Democratic voters under his banner.

Bill Clinton might do well to examine the success of that unique political phenomenon, the Maryland maverick McKeldin.

In 1951, when he was elected to his first term as governor, Maryland was as segregated as most other Southern states. It had a long tradition of racial discrimination. Its state anthem was (and is to this day) imbued with sympathy for the South in the Civil War. Its politicians outdid each other in catering to white prejudice.

In that climate, the conventional wisdom was that any candidate who did not appear dedicated to keeping "Negroes in their place" was a dead duck. Mr. McKeldin, however, stayed very much alive, despite his politically incorrect fairness and decency.

He not only did not cross the picket line protesting segregated seating at Ford's Theater in Baltimore; he took a picket sign and joined the line.

He named blacks to key state jobs, empowering people who had always been kept powerless.

He supported repeal of Jim Crow laws which were regarded as holy writ.

He supported the admission of blacks to the prestigious Poly "A" course three years before the Supreme Court declared public school segregation unconstitutional.

He formalized resistance to popular beliefs by setting up the Maryland Commission on Inter-racial Problems and Relations.

In his 1954 re-election bid, he was opposed by University of Maryland President H. "Curly" Byrd, whose exploitation of segregationist sentiment made the Republicans' Willie Horton gambit four years ago look noble by comparison. But the expected and predicted did not happen. Mr. McKeldin decisively defeated the champion of the status quo.

In his second term as governor, Mr. McKeldin continued to appoint many blacks to positions never previously within their reach: associate judge of the people's court, traffic court magistrate-at-large and deputy sheriff. Segregationists fumed,

but to no avail.

After completing his allowed two terms as governor, he ran for a second term as Baltimore mayor, and he won again.

How did this nice guy win ballgames? How did he manage to be loved by so many voters who hated almost everything he stood for?

He did it by not playing games. By not "strategizing" with consultants, media experts and spin doctors. By ignoring polls. By being himself. By having convictions and principles and sticking to them. By persisting in doing what he knew -- and voters came to know -- was the right thing to do.

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