The Breakfast Table

Massaging the Press; Pressing the Flesh

Dear Tamar,

Take it easy there. I did not intend to cast aspersion. But you seemed to be upset that Bill Bradley appeared in Harlem and tried to feel the American Negro’s pain. I agree that these episodes can be awkward—and, Lord, if they are awkward for you, how do you think they feel for me. But the fawning often stems from a naked earnestness like Bill Bradley’s. Sometimes it stems from the candidate’s failure to understand that black and brown voters have pretty much the same interests as white voters. They want: the schools to work; the jobs to be plentiful; the streets to be safe.

As for George Bush coming to shake hands at Unity in Seattle, perhaps it was “a throwaway” as you say—but no more so (and quite probably less so) than shaking hands with farmers in Iowa. The people at the Seattle conference are opinion makers, many of them. What they do and say could end up being crucial as the wheels of this campaign grind forward. In short, when things get tight, many of those Unity-goers will be rendering opinions in cold, hard print. Bush would have been ill-advised to pass them by.

I remember covering the early Clinton in New England in ‘92 and thinking, My Lord, what a shaker of hands and massager of backs! I asked him way back then what it would take to win. He said, “Give the same speech everywhere. Shake hands (meaning ‘touch’) as many as people as possible.” I thought, “Boy, this guy is confident of his power to press the flesh.” But flesh-pressing is the stuff that the trade is made of and Bill did it better than anybody. The issues are important, Tamar, but the voters tend to make powerful, intestinally based judgments of a candidate’s likability. Which is why George has a chance against Gore or Bradley—and why his father lost to Clinton.

I apologize for not having read your book. But there is still time.

As for the “hard” issues, I take it that you mean affirmative action. We will in fact get to that in the campaign, but you cannot blame people for not rushing to an issue that has been so heavily contaminated with ill will in the post-Reagan era. In any case, George W. has worked around the problem in post-Hopwood, Texas. They simply invoked the 10 percent rule, accepting the top 10 percent of high school students into classes at ole Longhorn U. This is less than optimal but will have to do until we can summon the political will to improve the quality of schools that serve black and Latino populations. I wrote a column recently about Ward Connerly (slayer of affirmative action in California) embracing an ACLU lawsuit that charges California with failing to provide qualified teachers and advanced-placement courses to poor and rural students—as required in state law. Mr. Connerly stared right in the face of a “hard question” and made an honorable choice, don’t you think?