Mfume bravely takes on the president of the U.S.

ROGER SIMON

June 09, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- When Rep. Kweisi Mfume walked into his Capitol Hill office yesterday morning, I asked him how it felt to be a national figure.

"Let me see how many spears I have in my back first," he said.

During these past few days, when national publications and networks have been calling Mfume every hour, he has tried to keep one political adage in mind:

You are never as bad as you look in defeat or as good as you look in victory.

In other words, Bill Clinton probably is not doing nearly as poorly as it seems nor Kweisi Mfume as well.

Still, Mfume, D-7th, has not only publicly taken on the president of the United States in the last week, he has done so with courage, skill and aplomb.

Mfume chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, which is made up of 38 voting House members, which is nearly 15 percent of the House Democrats, and one senator.

The caucus is not monolithic, but it seems universally furious these days with Clinton's withdrawal of support for Lani Guinier.

And when Mfume got off the phone with Clinton last week, he came to a decision.

"I decided that I would make my feelings crystal clear and public," he said. "I don't know if the people around Clinton always communicate things to him clearly. But if [Clinton] has seen my shows or read my comments lately, he now knows how I feel."

How he feels is this: Those who abandoned Guinier are "cowardly" and those who took Clinton's "pledge to bring about change to some extent do feel betrayed."

Asked on "Meet the Press" last Sunday if Clinton could say anything to him and the caucus to make up for Guinier, Mfume said: "Well, there's an old adage that I can't believe what you say because I see what you do."

And when Bill Clinton asked for a meeting yesterday with Mfume and the caucus, Mfume said that was impossible. (Instead, Mfume spent yesterday morning doing this interview.)

Mfume did set up a meeting tomorrow afternoon between Clinton and the caucus. And, typically, Mfume already has a game plan.

And those who have assumed that Mfume wants some symbolic gesture from Clinton like a black Supreme Court nominee are wrong.

"We want meaningful, concrete commitments from President Clinton on things like jobs, crime in the streets, education and stimulation of the economy," Mfume said.

"One example: Waive the federal matching requirement on the $6 billion already allocated for public works. Currently the states have to match 20 percent of that. Clinton could drop the match.

"But that's just an example. We want demonstrable action from the president. We want innovative, creative ideas that deal with real people."

Whatever anger has been generated by Clinton's flip-flop on Guinier, Mfume wants to mold into a useful, positive force.

"This is not a fleeting moment of passion," Mfume said. "Clinton's got to take a step backward with us in order to move a step forward. He has to offer meaningful concessions."

And in order to get what they want, the caucus members will not threaten to withhold their support from legislation that would benefit their own constituents. They see the trap in that.

Instead, Mfume said, the blacks in Congress might refuse to support the multibillion-dollar-aid bill to Russia.

"It may be difficult for us to embrace the idea of several billion dollars in Russian aid when we still need billions for [U.S.] urban aid," Mfume said.

Mfume said he could not predict what would happen at the meeting tomorrow with Clinton except to say that it would be "a no-holds-barred meeting."

"And I'll tell you one thing I haven't told the president, yet," Mfume said. "The Congressional Black Caucus might propose its own budget bill. We may offer our own crime bill. We might offer our own stimulus package. And that would hopefully force the administration to deal with us."

Mfume made clear that compromise and not combat is his goal. He does not wish to weaken Clinton or the Democratic Party.

But one issue does rise above both.

"When it comes to our dignity," Mfume said, "that is not negotiable."

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