The Ross-Jesse Show has no laugh track for Clinton

August 28, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

ROCKVILLE, Md. -- The setting, a suburban Maryland high school auditorium, seemed inauspicious. The audience was small and arrived late. But after the first performance of the Ross and Jesse Show, it's clear this act has everything it takes to be a long-running production, one that could be trouble for President Clinton.

With little notice, Ross Perot had come to address a major civil rights organization. In an inspired bit of casting, the organizers seated him onstage beside the man he has supplanted as the third force in American politics, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

For two hours, the two best (arguably) performers on the national scene today -- certainly two of the largest egos -- took turns at the microphone. The result was an impressive display of political theater, complete with dramatic tension and even a bit of comic relief.

The last time Mr. Perot addressed a predominantly black group he bombed badly and wound up quitting the presidential race a few days later. That was July 1992, when he was jeered by delegates to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's convention in Nashville, Tenn., for referring to blacks as "you people" in a seemingly well-intentioned speech designed to show that he wasn't a bigot.

His appearance Thursday night before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in which he effusively praised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of the 30th anniversary March on Washington, is apparently the start of a new Perot effort to reach out to the black community as he lays the foundation of a possible 1996 presidential run.

Though he got 19 percent of the vote in 1992, his independent candidacy fared worst among black voters. And though his poll ratings have risen since the election, he still gets almost no support from blacks.

There was unmistakable tension in the hall as Mr. Perot got up and began reading his tribute to Dr. King from a prepared text. He went on to mention a New Jersey woman he recently met, saying: "She happens to be black, but she is a lovely, strong citizen. . . ."

Later, he referred to the problem of illegal Mexican immigration and the word "integration" came out instead; he quickly apologized. There were no major gaffes, however, and the response from the mainly older, middle-class blacks in the audience was extremely warm.

Mr. Perot has launched a crusade to keep Mr. Clinton from winning approval in Congress this fall for a new free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. If the treaty is approved, Mr. Perot warned the SCLC, inner-city jobs would be the first to go to Mexico, while fresh shipments of illicit cocaine and cancer-causing foodstuffs would flood the ghetto.

The Texas billionaire may never succeed in winning a lot of votes from blacks, but he and Mr. Jackson make a dangerous duo on the trade issue. Together, they reflect the breadth of the opposition that Mr. Clinton is facing.

At times, Mr. Perot seemed almost to be courting Mr. Jackson. He jokingly described himself as a warmup act for the civil rights leader and repeatedly invoked Mr. Jackson's trademark "Be Somebody" phrase.

On the anniversary of his mentor's "I Have A Dream" speech, Mr. Jackson is a figure of fading national influence, a two-time loser in presidential politics who has increasingly been supplanted by elected black officials in Congress and elsewhere.

Joining forces with Mr. Perot would enable Mr. Jackson to put increased pressure on the Clinton administration for political concessions, because of the implied threat that he would help lead black voters away from the Democratic ticket in 1996.

Indeed, concluded Mr. Jackson, Ross Perot's coming before the SCLC was nothing less than the fulfilment of Dr. King's dream, expressed three decades ago, that blacks and whites would join together one day.

For his part, Mr. Perot imagined aloud how Dr. King was at that very moment gazing down from heaven on his former colleagues in the civil rights movement, "his heart filled with pride."

What Dr. King would have thought of this oddest of political couplings is less certain, but a Perot-Jackson alliance only means more headaches for Bill Clinton.

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