Mfume, spelled T-R-O-U-B-L-E, snubs Clinton's olive branch

Sandy Grady

June 21, 1993|By Sandy Grady

WHEN a president invites them over to the White House for chat, Hollywood megastars, sports millionaires and corporate tycoons giddily rush for their limos.

So why is Kweisi Mfume snubbing Bill Clinton?

Each time Mr. Clinton suggests he drop over for an Oval Office talk, Kweisi Mfume says, sorry, chief, I'm busy.

A shocking jolt to protocol, a perverse rejection of a presidential perk.

You expect certain people to give Mr. Clinton grief. Ross Perot is a guaranteed mischief-maker. Bob Dole's jabs are predictable. Rush Limbaugh will never lead a Clinton parade.

But Kweisi Mfume?

After all, when he was hanging out on West Baltimore street corners, belting wine and getting into gang fights, his name was plain Frizzell Gray.

Different time, different man.

He switched to an African name, which we'd better learn to pronounce (Kwa-EE-see Oom-FOO-may) because he's becoming a star player.

Now when Representative Mfume, D-7th, takes the House floor in impeccably tailored suits, speaking in a modulated, radio-honed voice, people listen. And not only because he's leader of the Black Caucus.

To Bill Clinton, Mr. Mfume is pronounced t-r-o-u-b-l-e.

For 10 days, White House honchos tried to lure Mr. Mfume and the 40-person Congressional Black Caucus for a heart-to-heart with Mr. Clinton. Sorry, not interested.

"We don't have a whole lot to say to the president, and I doubt if he has a whole lot to say to us," said Mr. Mfume in his latest rebuff.

Ironically, the Black Caucus griped noisily during the Ronald Reagan era because it was locked out of the White House.

Now, offered access -- brunch, lunch, a spin on the presidential jogging track? -- it gives Mr. Clinton a cold shoulder.

On the surface, the chill began when the president ditched Lani Guinier for a Justice Department job. Mr. Mfume and black lawmakers, angered by Mr. Clinton's clumsy rejection of an African-American woman, stonewalled the White House.

"It will take time for wounds to heal," said Mr. Mfume.

The Black Caucus formally was a toothless group dependably taking orders from the House leadership. Now, numbers doubled by '92 elections, it's bolder. Mr. Mfume's take-no-prisoners steel gives it new feistiness.

Mr. Mfume understands an underdog role. As Frizzell Gray, he ran the shabby Baltimore streets. He sharpened his diction as an R&B disc jockey. He had to beat charges of sexual misbehavior (he fathered five sons by three women, all out of wedlock) to win his 1986 House seat.

He knows the springs of the Black Caucus mini-revolt go to Mr. Clinton's "centrist" style. Mr. Clinton made a strategic, racial gamble in the '92 campaign to court white suburbanites by ducking black alliances. His coolness toward Jesse Jackson, the Sister Souljah incident, his "New Democrat" rhetoric were calculated to shake the "just-another-liberal" image.

"We don't knock the president for moving toward the middle," said Mr. Mfume. "But we expect him to demonstrate some sense and compassion of things important to minorities."

To an outsider, Black Caucus complaints about Mr. Clinton seem vague: that he's waffled on Haitian refugees, he lost the stimulus package that would help inner cities and his White House command consists of white males.

"There doesn't seem to be anyone of color within the president's inner circle," said Mr. Mfume. "I don't even know if there's a woman among the six or seven people who make decisions."

True, outside adviser Vernon Jordan is the major black figure with Mr. Clinton's ear; press secretary Dee Dee Myers is the only woman in the White House inner cadre. No quota system in the Clinton gang.

While Mr. Clinton tries to patch up the Black Caucus quarrel, pragmatic politicos shrug an ancient dismissal: Blacks may gripe, but they'll vote Democratic, lemming-like. Where else are they going to go?

Mr. Mfume's retort: We may take a walk.

If Mr. Clinton's budget comes back from the Senate with huge cuts in Medicare and entitlements, Mr. Mfume says 40 black House members may balk: "I can't live with that. I'd call an emergency Black Caucus meeting to decide if we'll vote against it as a bloc."

The open rebellion by the Black Caucus is novel on Capitol Hill, but it's the usual struggle for a president's soul. Just as the hard right pulled at Ronald Reagan and George Bush, so his liberal wing tugs at Bill Clinton.

"This is no one-night stand," says Mr. Mfume. "We're in this for the long haul. The old days have ended. Don't take us for granted."

With friends like these, does Mr. Clinton need enemies?

No, insists Mr. Mfume, he's rooting for Mr. Clinton to show some leadership.

"You know in the old Rocky films, they said he had the 'eye of a tiger,'" said Mr. Mfume. "That's what the president needs."

Meanwhile, the president will keep hanging out invitations.

Guess who's not coming to dinner?

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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