Bush's `conservative compassion' offers little help amid East Baltimore realities

July 18, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

TO POINT OUT the most obvious fact about George W. Bush's visit to East Baltimore last week: There haven't been so many white people in the 200 block of N. Chester St. in memory.

Bush was there, and Rep. Robert Ehrlich, and former gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey got directions and came over, too. Sauerbrey's running Bush's Maryland presidential operation. What happens if he loses? She gets to demand another recount?

OK, that gets the minor bile out of our system. Now on to the major stuff.

Bush, the so-called "compassionate conservative" -- it's his own term, and it translates beautifully to his trip here -- came to The Door because Sauerbrey did a little advance scouting for him.

They wanted to showcase a faith-based community outreach program that doesn't rely on too much government help. The Door qualifies there. In the 16 years since the Rev. Joe Ehrmann, the ex-Colt, helped put the place into existence, scrambling for private donations and church assistance, it's touched hundreds of kids, some of whom have been abandoned by parents, all of whom have been stiffed by conservative Republicans who had no use for cities, or for black people, or for impoverished children who have needed government assistance because there was no one else at home.

Thus, George W. Bush puts the word "compassionate" in front of the word "conservative," a wink of political shorthand, and hopes it will convey everything he needs to say.

Which, on North Chester Street last week, was a large part of the problem: He needed to say far more than he did.

For here was some of the truth that he should have talked about, but didn't: There are eight abandoned homes on this little block, and they're shooting galleries for junkies.

You could walk right through the open front doors of two of them last week, or just look through the open frames that once were street-level front windows, and see huge piles of trash covering the entire first floor: soiled mattresses and broken bottles and cans, bloody needles next to a child's stroller and diapers, ragged leftovers of wasted lives, and flies buzzing above it all while children outside sat on front steps, or rode their bikes in the street and tried to imagine none of this would touch their lives.

"What we try to do," said Jim Davenport, the interim director of The Door, "is show these children some hope."

They need it. About 15 percent of the neighborhood's kids, he said, have both parents living at home. Many have neither. At Christmas, Davenport said, nearly a hundred kids are brought into The Door for gifts so that they'll have a little something. In many of these cases, both parents are incarcerated.

The street drugs, naturally, fuel everything: crime and gunplay, and the protection system at Scotty's Variety Store, a corner grocery at Chester and Fayette. There, Jessie Scott stands behind a Plexiglas window with a metal revolving door for handing out items. If you want groceries, she'll walk along the aisles behind her and get them for customers. They can't come back on their own.

"Twenty-seven years I've been here," she said on the day of Bush's arrival. "And I've had the barricade up the last 15."

"It's rough down here," somebody said.

"Well, except for today," Scott said. "You know, we got a clean block today. The city sent the work crews down, and they cleaned up the street and the alleys so it wouldn't look bad on national television."

On Chester Street, this was the thing that impressed everyone on the day of Bush's arrival, and the arrival of cameras trailing him: the city work crews that arrived first and cleaned places routinely ignored. Next, one day soon, maybe they can take a stab at the trash inside those abandoned rowhouses.

For now, here was Jim Davenport, and he was taking Bush from The Door, and marching him across the street to a couple of these wrecks.

"Basically, typical urban America," Davenport said.

Bush nodded and glanced at the trash inside. The two men stood there all of 20 seconds. Then they moved on, for there were TV cameras all around, and a woman sitting on her front steps with some little children, so Bush could exhibit for everyone his compassionate conservatism.

"Are you a good reader?" Bush asked Aaron Parks.

Aaron shook his head no. He is 4 years old.

"Well, let me give you a hint," Bush said, moving off. "Become a good reader."

Well, isn't that wisdom to live by? The city's schools have textbooks dating back to the Carter administration, and the computer revolution takes in the entire country, but mostly whites, and here is the compassionate conservative offering the fullness of his wisdom: "Become a good reader."

Do I mock him? Of course. Because, in the emptiness of his visit, Bush welcomes it. He comes to this wreck of a city street and refuses to take any questions about his ideas for changing it. No questions whatsoever (except from a staged group of children inside The Door. Samples: What's your hobby? What's your wife's name?)

And he comes to this neighborhood crippled by drugs and guns, in a city now proudly boasting that it's on a pace for only -- only! -- 250 murders this year, to a place called The Door that has consistently backed gun control measures in Annapolis -- and doesn't mention his own deplorable record on guns: enacting a law to allow concealed handguns on the streets of Texas, signing a law to protect gun interests from lawsuits, fighting child safety locks for firearms.

So, thanks for coming to town, George. Next time, while posing for the cameras, perhaps tell us what your administration might actually do for the places such as The Door, and the troubles on North Chester Street.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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