Jackson, Perot share SCLC forum Ex-candidates are able to find common ground

August 27, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

ROCKVILLE -- The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson stands tall over the podium, his wavy black hair neatly combed back and the words -- with the cadences of a Baptist minister -- flowing.

The diminutive Ross Perot seems to peek up from behind a lectern. His hair is in a crew cut and his words come heavily flavored with a Texas twang.

What could these two guys possibly have in common?

As it turns out, they share plenty -- at least if you listened to the two former presidential candidates speak at the 36th annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference last night at a high school in Montgomery County.

"There's a two-track school system in this country," Mr. Jackson said. "One track going to Yale. And one track going to jail.

"Ross Perot supports equal funding for education. . . . We can deal on that."

The two also found common ground on one of Mr. Perot's pet topics, the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Both men think that the agreement, which would erase tariffs and eliminate many trade barriers in North America, would lower the wages of U.S. workers and export many manufacturing jobs to Mexico.

"In the case of NAFTA, it will lift Mexico's income slightly and lower America's drastically," Mr. Jackson said.

As is his style, Mr. Perot put NAFTA before the audience in the form of a simple question.

"How many of you feel that this thing will create jobs and raise the standard of living in this country?" he asked.

The audience, numbering about 150, was with him: "No," they answered.

The harmony between the two men extended far beyond matters last night.

Speaking before the group once headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., both showed great respect for the civil rights progress made in the United States since Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech 30 years ago.

And that, for Mr. Perot at least, is news. He had to endure cat calls at the 1992 convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after repeatedly referring to blacks as "you people."

There were no such gaffes last night, as Mr. Perot praised Dr. King, offered moving anecdotes about black working people and molded his economic message to his audience.

"Dr. King proved that one person can make a difference, and he certainly did that," Mr. Perot said. "Lincoln once said that this government is of the people, by the people and for the people. That's not just rhetoric, but that's our birthright."

The Texas billionaire, who has styled himself as a government watchdog and political threat since capturing 19 percent of the vote in last year's presidential election, also said NAFTA would hurt blacks first.

"All of you are focused on enterprise zones and building jobs in the inner city," said Mr. Perot, who has been campaigning vigorously against the treaty. "[Under NAFTA], the first jobs that will leave this country are those jobs."

Those words drew applause.

The common interests of the two men surprised many who came to hear them speak at Richard Montgomery High School.

But at least one listener didn't care for either one.

"I have no love for Ross Perot. I don't think he knows a damn thing about black people," said Henry B. Williams, a retired government worker who lives in Silver Spring.

Mr. Williams said he is similarly unimpressed with Mr. Jackson.

"It is always interesting to hear what Jesse has to say," Mr. Williams said. "But usually there is no follow-up or follow-through."

Cindy Hall said she was impressed with what Mr. Perot said.

"Perot is a real people person," she said. "I like to hear him talk."

Margie Quelet admitted being drawn to the event mainly by the (( celebrity status of the two men.

"They are kind of like stars," she said. "I like them both. They make people think.

"They offer the type of grass-roots communication that we haven't had elsewhere. Not in politics, anyway."

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