Will the cocoon around Clinton dull his concern?

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 19, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the television screen, Bill Clinton is seen with Diana Ross and smiling broadly, as who wouldn't? Ross, with a mane of hair that could fan all of Brazil, is standing on Clinton's left, and Michael Jackson's on the president-elect's right, and behind them is Kenny Rogers.

The newspapers say Jack Nicholson is stalking around nearby, all teeth and attitude, and Barbra Streisand's there, and Warren Beatty and Annette Bening and Faye Dunaway, selflessly lending their glitter to the new president's inauguration and wishing nothing in return but a feeling of self-importance and a little residual publicity, perhaps, for their careers.

Naturally, this makes some of us think about the guy on Calhoun Street in West Baltimore, who attempted to lend Bill Clinton a little of his own aura and then proceeded to disappear quite immediately.

And we wonder if President Clinton will be as oblivious to the poor slob as candidate Clinton was.

The guy on Calhoun Street, in a Georgetown University sweat shirt, appeared the last time Clinton was here, last February at the Nehemiah housing project, when Clinton was escorted around by Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

It was a brisk, sunny day, and the mayor felt proud. Yes, his city had been ravaged by 12 years of Republican neglect, he was saying, but look what could happen when intelligence and hard work were combined with a good gamble: Homeownership for 300 families who otherwise might never have imagined it.

Clinton, surrounded by this protective cocoon of police and Secret Service men, never seemed aware of this poor slob in the sweat shirt, although Schmoke saw him and wanted him gone.

''Mister Mayor,'' the guy yelled, ''how come the rents are so high?''

Schmoke seemed embarrassed. Clinton seemed oblivious. The man in the sweat shirt seemed desperate.

''The rent's too high,'' he said again.

Schmoke, now looking exasperated, snapped: ''They're not, and you know it.''

''They're too high,'' the guy insisted, ''and . . .''

The sentence ended there. Hands grabbed him, front and back, and he was last heard crying, ''What are you snatching me for?''

When a piece of this drama appeared in this newspaper space the next day, some around Clinton got upset and made telephone calls here: Why did the man in the sweat shirt have to be mentioned? What about Clinton's appearance in a poor neighborhood? What about his declarations of good intent? Didn't all this count for something?

Yes, but . . .

In the last 12 years, while the cities like Baltimore were decaying, talk was cheap. Even appearances were cheap. Reagan showed up at the Park Circle industrial park once, pronounced cities healthy, and then blew town before anybody could contradict him. Bush came here only for Orioles games but, not to minimize his concern for urban America too much, he did stroll through that shopping center in Los Angeles once after the Rodney King riots.

But one problem with presidents, even those with good intentions, is insulation. That day on Calhoun Street, Bill Clinton was too surrounded by official types to notice the poor slob in the sweat shirt.

And that's too bad, because the guy stood for something in his madness, which Clinton must grasp if he is to make his administration count. He stood for all the slobbering, frightening, heartbreaking, exasperating, desperate human beings haunting our streets in the last decade.

Giving lip service is easy, but does not obscure facts. Children can't sit in front of their houses for fear of gunfire, and the drug dealers now rule entire neighborhoods. Race relations, once full of hope, are now strained by a ruinous economy and by years of political manipulation in Washington.

Over the last 20 years, household income in this American city has remained virtually unchanged. We're making 1970 money at 1990 prices. Half of all Marylanders who are below the poverty level live in this city -- though Baltimore accounts for only 16 percent of the state's population.

And when Bill Clinton is finished with Diana Ross, and with Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand, too, he will have to remember talking of these things during his campaign, and begin to deal directly with all those like the man in the sweat shirt on Calhoun Street.

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