The Breakfast Table

Passing on the Left

Dear Tamar,

Bill Bradley was known as “Dollar Bill” when he played professional basketball–not because of how he played but because he squeezed his dollars until they wept and cried. While his teammate Walt Frazier ran around in mink coats and Rolls Royces, Dollar Bill wore the same ratty trench coat and shoes run down at the heels. Just something I thought you’d like to know. We are back again at tactics. The Bradley inside crew has looked at what seems like a lock by Al Gore and decided to run to Gore’s left. The Gorites have seen this and are protecting that flank–but not too flagrantly. They showed this recently with the Gore proposal to achieve health insurance for more of America’s children. Not all “tactics” are evil. This a worthy goal, one that will save us all those emergency-room dollars–but it is part of a political maneuver as well. Bradley has rightly sensed discontent among traditional Dems about Clinton’s me-tooism with respect to Republican philosophy. The problem is that the discontent was eclipsed by public anger about the impeachment drama.

The brilliance of the conservative movement (take a bow, you crafty Kristols) lies principally in how it changed the language of American politics. “Liberal” became a pejorative, synonymous with weakness, taxation, overspending–and blind obeisance to welfare cheats and Negroes. Liberals were nonplused and bit their nails as the conservative ideology machine turned them into pulp. That machine would still be dominating the debate–had it not been for Newt and the radicals who overplayed the mandate and made the American people edgy. Dollar Bill, Rhodes Scholar that he is, is smart enough to know all this and is betting that there will be some daylight to the left of Gore. George W. is in the same ball park. He saw that frothing Republican convention in ‘92 that spelled disaster for his party. He will not be out-compassioned and will utter sweet nothings even as he pulls the switch on the electric chair. Both Dollar Bill and George W. recognize that Americans are a people of the middle. But as for Dollar Bill, he’s caught in the passing lane behind the Gore express. As that girl group used to say in the famous doo-wop song: It’s gonna take a miracle, yes, it’s gonna take a miracle.”

Speaking of loaded terminology. The big conservative coup was transforming the phrase “affirmative action” into “preferences”–as you do in your posting–such that newspapers use the two interchangeably. I refer you to the Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page–just about the only prime-time journalist in the country to really jump on this, this … linguistic hijacking. The two terms are not interchangeable. “Affirmative action” connotes reaching out to underrepresented minorities on the grounds that some racial mixture is socially desirable. When I go out to find and hire people I do not “prefer” someone nonwhite. But I do in fact “prefer” to have a staff that reflects something of the population that my business is meant to serve–lest my company falter and die. Hence, the New York City cops searching for gay police officers. Wise move, in this capital of Wigstock, that Labor Day drag ball.

On the question of how we salvage inner-city schools. We as a people must be willing to ensure at the minimum that the kids have a qualified teacher at the front of the room, a set of books, and a safe school. When the schools are particularly bad–as in the case of Washington, D.C., I have advocated vouchers, not penny ante ones proposed by some in Congress last year but real ones that would send at least a few kids out of the city to the very best schools available. We can’t do anything about bad parents–be they white bad parents or black bad parents–and simply must treat that issue as such. If it takes federal subsidies or a Peace Corps strategy, so be it. The ACLU suit in California may be slow going, but it has highlighted the principle problem. As a culture, we have tended to believe that good education is wasted on the black and brown poor–who will soon be the majority. And as Ward Connerly said the other day, that sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy that is killing the kids–and America’s future in the bargain. We can either throw up our hands–or send in the troops. It’s that simple, I think.