Dole sends NAACP signal that its support unneeded

July 11, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

From a distance, Bob Dole tells the NAACP to kiss off. Nothing personal, he says, just a scheduling conflict. He says this in a prepared statement, which is issued by a campaign spokesman. Better, he should issue it through an interpreter.

The interpretation, for many, is that Bob Dole won't win many black votes in November anyway, so why risk alienating certain white voters in July with a gesture perceived as empty but ostentatious flattery?

Bill Clinton can go to the NAACP convention, because he's seen as a friend to black America. George Bush stiffed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People four years ago. Ross Perot spoke, back when nobody much knew his views about race, and was ridiculed when he kept saying "you people." Now, on the same day he learns Colin L. Powell wants no part of his presidential campaign, Bob Dole confirms he has no time for the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

In Charlotte, N.C., where he's leading the NAACP convention, Kweisi Mfume understands such things. In Washington, where he's a Maryland Republican pulling for a Dole victory, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest does not.

Weird racial positioning is at work here. In the spring of 1995, Bob Dole invited Maryland's Republican House members to his office for a little reading of the political winds. He wanted to know how much support he had in Maryland's delegation. Gilchrest was there, along with Constance A. Morella, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Roscoe G. Bartlett. In passing, somebody asked about Colin Powell.

"Dole said, 'I'd accept him as vice president,' " Gilchrest was remembering Tuesday, when the news broke that Powell wouldn't accept Dole. Not only would he not take any vice presidential offer, Powell finally confirmed, but he clearly backed away from the man who might have been his running mate.

"I don't plan to go out on the campaign fund-raising trail," Powell told the Associated Press. "I am practicing my own politics privately."

This was reportedly disappointing to the Dole campaign, but not exactly shocking to America. To Gilchrest, it confirmed something he had related months ago in a little room in Baltimore.

"What you hear in Washington," Gilchrest said that afternoon, "is that Dole has his people calling Colin Powell every day about running with him."

"And?" he was asked.

"And," said Gilchrest, "they can't even get him to come to the phone."

When the two finally met, Powell had already made up his mind. He wanted no piece of a Dole candidacy.

"I'm not an insider on this," Gilchrest said, "so I don't know why. Maybe he just didn't want to be vice president. Maybe it was his family situation."

Maybe, it was suggested, the same impulse that persuaded Dole to stiff the NAACP also persuaded Powell to turn away from Dole. Maybe it was conflicts over affirmative action and abortion and the right to public education for the children of illegal aliens. Maybe Powell saw Dole masking indifference to blacks with a gesture that was only an empty symbol of a Republican olive branch.

Gilchrest paused at the last thought. This is his political party, and Bob Dole is his candidate. So he mentioned cigarettes.

"I think smoking is addicting," Gilchrest said. Left hanging in the air were remarks from Dole, who has questioned cigarettes' addictiveness while hoping no one would notice he's been bankrolled by the tobacco industry.

"I really think they're addicting," Gilchrest said. "But my father doesn't. But I still love him. And I'd still vote for Dole over Clinton. But if Bob Dole asked me about [speaking to] the NAACP, I'd say, my goodness, absolutely yes, under no circumstances miss it. Just go there and say what's good about America.

"What we're hearing is that Dole had a scheduling conflict, and when Jack Kemp was offered instead of Dole, they said no. I would say, 'How many days does this convention last?' (Three.) I would say, 'Come on, work it in. Go down there for half an hour and say a few words. Or use the new technology to talk to them.' He has to reach out in big-tent ways, where people with different opinions are accepted. What kind of signal does this send?"

To NAACP officials, the signal was clear: Dole hopes to win without them in November. Ignoring them now seems a portent of ignoring them later -- though, in Charlotte on Tuesday, in a hookup to Baltimore, Kweisi Mfume said, "To tell you the truth, we're not focusing on Dole. We have other things on our mind."

When he heard this, Wayne Gilchrest smiled.

"I trust Kweisi," he said of his former Maryland congressional colleague. "I really feel good about him. That's the kind of man he is. He's giving a lot of credibility to that organization. He'll give them the kind of credibility Martin Luther King gave the whole civil rights movement."

Certain things, you push aside. Gilchrest disagrees with his father about cigarettes, but loves him anyway. The NAACP feels insulted by Bob Dole, but maybe, Gilchrest was saying, they'll find something in his makeup to love in November.

Pub Date: 7/11/96

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