Bill Gray's eminence

October 31, 1994|By Derrick Z. Jackson

OTHER THAN President Clinton, no one is more responsible for the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti than Bill Gray. No one has been so rapidly reduced to a footnote in newspaper chronologies as Mr. Gray. No one seems as unconcerned about this circumstance as Mr. Gray himself.

"This is a joyous and happy moment," Mr. Gray said over the phone from Washington on Oct. 14. "That is what matters."

Mr. Gray, the former congressman from Philadelphia who runs the United Negro College Fund, was named special adviser on Haiti by Clinton on May 8. Back then, Mr. Clinton's Haiti policy was a hackneyed, hacksawed limb from President Bush. The policy began badly when Mr. Clinton reneged on a 1992 promise to end Mr. Bush's forced return of refugees to Haiti. It collapsed in 1993 when the military that ousted President Aristide reneged on a 1993 agreement to leave power.

Mr. Aristide did not trust an all-white lineup of Clinton aides who, perhaps because of CIA payments to coup leaders and a CIA report that declared Mr. Aristide mentally unstable, put more pressure on Mr. Aristide than on the army to negotiate. Mr. Clinton's commitment to Haitian democracy became so unstable that members of Congress resorted to civil disobedience. TransAfrica's Randall Robinson held a 27-day hunger strike.

Mr. Clinton was forced to admit his policy was no longer "sustainable." Mr. Gray gave the policy its moral and political sustenance. He persuaded Mr. Clinton to stop forced return of refugees. When that sparked a new refugee surge, aides wanted to resume forced returns. Mr. Gray said no. "I didn't want to see black folks drowning, and our policy of direct returns was discriminatory," he said.

Mr. Gray used his experience on the House foreign aid subcommittee to set up refugee havens in the Caribbean. At the same time, Mr. Gray, who wrote the 1986 legislation that imposed economic sanctions against South Africa, urged a chokehold on Haiti. Mr. Clinton stopped U.S. commercial flights and froze financial transactions between the U.S. and Haiti.

Mr. Gray, who held the House posts of majority whip and the chairs of its budget committee and Democratic caucus, met with over 200 members of Congress to dampen fears over intervention in Haiti. Unlike previous Haiti advisers, he met with refugee advocacy groups. Most important, he patched up relations between the Clinton administration and Mr. Aristide himself. From May until Labor Day, Mr. Gray was the only Clinton official who had a serious dialogue with Mr. Aristide.

"I was asked by many people, 'Do you find him inflexible or uncompromising?'" Mr. Gray said. "'Do you find him hard to deal with?' I said no. Aristide is an analytical, rational man. We're both ministers, and I think we both understood each other on that level. A lot of people on the Hill were irritated when Aristide did not immediately say 'thank you' to our soldiers going in. He is the kind of guy who wanted to make sure he understood the ramifications of every point. Then he said thank you many times."

Jimmy Carter's eleventh-hour attempt to negotiate an agreement, an agreement that did not exist until the coup leaders knew U.S. planes were headed to Haiti, has received much more praise than Mr. Gray's five months of diplomacy. Critics like Ross Perot said Mr. Gray's appointment was merely a bone to throw to the Congressional Black Caucus.

"I wonder if Mr. Perot is willing to say that our policy in the Middle East is Jewish-inspired," Mr. Gray told Newsday. "I wonder if he's willing to say our policy in Poland is Polish-inspired . . . When you play that card -- this was a Congressional Black Caucus policy -- you basically are playing a race card. It's a nice way of saying this is a nigger policy, and therefore, not foreign policy."

Had Mr. Gray failed, critics would have blamed him and the CBC for leading an aimless Mr. Clinton by the nose. But it is precisely because of Mr. Gray, the only African-American in Mr. Clinton's inner circle on Haiti, that Mr. Clinton can now claim any semblance of a foreign policy. Mr. Gray himself will not say that. "If I wanted to be secretary of state, maybe I would have sharper elbows" about taking credit, he said.

While Jimmy Carter moans of unappreciation from the White House, Mr. Gray has quietly headed back to the United Negro College Fund, having shown that an experienced mind is a terrible thing to waste. Mr. Gray has the thanks he needs, from Mr. Aristide.

"We thank you for the sense of respect which you always showed in our relationship," Mr. Aristide told Mr. Gray recently at Mr. Gray's church in Philadelphia. "You deserve the medal of honor, which we will give you in Haiti."

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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