Has Dole decided to be the white man's candidate?

July 12, 1996|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- When Bob Dole chose to campaign in Richmond, the cradle of the Confederacy, rather than speak to the national convention of the NAACP Tuesday , was he signaling his campaign strategy?

Was he indicating that, like some of his predecessors, he intends to run as ''the white man's candidate?''

A firestorm of black criticism erupted after Senator Dole snubbed the NAACP invitation. ''He has no interest in what the membership of the NAACP stands for,'' said Rep. Donald Payne, a New Jersey Democrat.

''It shows disrespect,'' said Rep. Major Owens, a New York Democrat. ''He's not even willing to pretend anymore about reaching out to black voters.''

Republican spokesmen said Mr. Dole ''hasn't written off anybody's vote.'' One pointed out that the senator is still trying to get retired general Colin Powell to help him win the votes of blacks and other Americans.

Black suspicions seem justified by the Republican record of the last 16 years, when GOP presidential candidates shied away from the NAACP and in some instances ran openly anti-black campaigns.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan did not hide his contempt for the civil-rights laws enacted in the 1960s. He opened his campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil-rights workers had been murdered and covered over with a bulldozer. His Mississippi speech extolled ''state's rights.''

Not only did President Reagan decline to speak at NAACP conventions or meetings, he went eight years refusing to talk to NAACP officials or any other conventional civil-rights leaders. I 00 once asked him why over lunch. He said he didn't remember going to Mississippi, but did remember that the black leaders ''criticized me, so I just said, 'To hell with 'em.' ''

Stealing the South

Mr. Reagan's anti-black strategies helped the GOP to take the once-solid South away from the Democrats.

In 1988, George Bush did well playing the race card through some inflammatory campaign ads exploiting a black criminal named Willie Horton. In 1992, President Bush clearly snubbed the NAACP. He vacationed in Maine while sending Jack Kemp to speak in his stead. But aloofness from the NAACP was not enough to save him.

Senator Dole tried to give Mr. Kemp to the civil-rights organization again this year but NAACP leaders said, ''No, thanks. It's Dole or no one.''

Colin Powell and a lot of media pundits have said that the senator blundered politically by not speaking at the NAACP gathering in Charlotte, N.C. I can't say that the snub was bad for his campaign, but I am certain that it was bad for the nation. President Reagan launched a long, dark era of revived and resurgent racism in these United States when he refused to talk to civil-rights leaders. We are all still paying for it.

The last thing this violent, deeply divided society needs now is a decent man, Mr. Dole, trying to save his political career by grasping recklessly for the toxic weeds of racism.

But then, they say that a drowning man will grasp at the thinnest reed.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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