The crisis in black -- and in white -- leadership

October 17, 1995|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- There are many who believe the rise in prominence of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan reflects a crisis in black American leadership. That's only part of the story. It reflects a crisis in white leadership, too.

Or, so no one will feel left out, let's call it the crisis in American leadership.

Supporters of Mr. Farrakhan's ''Million Man March'' appeared to be attracted not so much by the minister or his fiery rhetoric as by the hope that today's black Americans can come up with an answer at the grass-roots level, the same way blacks created America's civil-rights movement.

To many, the biggest problems facing black America today are not civil-rights problems. They are still important, but I would list jobs, schools, crime, family breakdown and economic development ahead of them.

An outworn agenda

Unfortunately, traditional black leadership has not updated its agenda. Mr. Farrakhan, with the Nation's well-known outreach to the poor and imprisoned, has stepped in to fill the gap. His call to march captured national support among black Americans, partly because it seemed timely, partly because there is not much else happening, especially in the new conservative Republican-dominated Washington.

As the civil-rights movement has failed to have much lasting impact on today's rising economic problems, Mr. Farrakhan is filling a gap in black leadership.

But I also detect a gap in white leadership. In the days leading up to yesterday's march on Washington, there were abundant signs that African Americans hold no monopoly on confusion and dismay about where the country is going or who is going to take it there.

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., became the eighth Democratic senator since November's Republican takeover to announce his retirement. With him goes one of the last strong, Southern centrist voices on behalf of the poor and dispossessed. It has gotten lonely on the left-progressive side of the nation's political leadership.

Meanwhile, the 10 Republican presidential candidates who showed up last week for their first New Hampshire candidates' forum were anything but lonely. Billed as a debate, it was not. Nor was it very exciting. As one National Public Radio reporter put it, the 10 smiling candidates seated politely behind two tiers of long tables across the stage looked like volunteers working the telephone bank at a telethon.

Vote for 'undecided'

If so, few bells were ringing. Polls show Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to be the overwhelming favorite, with ''undecided'' running a remarkably close second. The rest, including the well financed but nevertheless faltering Texas Sen. Phil Gramm run way behind in the single digits. Conservatives lamented that there was not a one among them who offered more than a vague hint of Ronald Reagan's gift for articulating the concerns and dreams of America's great suburban middle class.

In other words, as much as dispossessed blacks have been seeking a voice, so have anxious whites. A lot of Senator Dole's supporters were telling pollsters they would switch to someone who is not yet running, retired Gen. Colin Powell, if he gives them a chance.

It is a sign of Mr. Powell's appeal that suddenly the conservative candidate Pat Buchanan is threatening to fiercely oppose Mr. Powell's cautiously moderate support for affirmative action, abortion rights and gun control, even as an independent, if necessary. House Speaker Newt Gingrich also is reported to be sufficiently concerned about a Powell takeover of the party to throw his hard-core conservative hat in the ring if Mr. Powell enters the race.

The continuing national yearning for Mr. Powell, even after he revealed his positions on such hot-button issues as abortion, gun control and affirmative action, reminds me of something the black South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said at the height of the anti-apartheid movement: ''I am a leader by default, only because nature does not allow a vacuum.''

I think Americans are detecting in many ways a similar vacuum of leadership, not on the hot-button issues of the extreme left and right, which have an abundance of leaders, self-appointed and otherwise, but in the great moderate middle, what Mr.

Powell calls the ''sensible center,'' where most Americans reside.

What great leaders have

''All the great leaders have had one characteristic in common,'' the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in the late 1970s. ''It was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time.''

As black Americans have grown anxious about the legacy of the struggle for equality, it is ironic that so many are finding themselves turning to Mr. Farrakhan, a separatist, for leadership.

But perhaps it is no more ironic than the way so many other Americans, anxious about racial and political polarization, turn for leadership to Mr. Powell, a voice for the ''sensible center.''

That's the way leaders work. If they do not appear by themselves, the times often create them.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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