Ballot Box

Showdown at the Apollo

NEW YORK, N.Y.–Previous presidential debates, in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, have been mostly staid, dowdy affairs. Tonight’s Democratic match-up at the Apollo Theater in Harlem was brutal and glitzy, a cross between a prizefight and the Grammys. Celebrities, dressed to kill, arrived by limo. Al Sharpton was there, and you kept expecting to see Don King. In the pressroom, partisans of the two candidates shouted at each other and nearly came to blows. And after it was over, Phil Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg showed up to spin.

The candidates slugged it out like heavyweights competing for a purse, with the largely black audience baying, booing, and cheering at every jab. For sheer number of punches thrown, the debate must have set a record. Here were the accusations I caught as they sailed by:

Bradley’s Charges Against Gore:

  1. That Gore won’t ask Bill Clinton to order an end to racial profiling.
  2. That Gore “led the effort to end affirmative action at the federal level.”
  3. That Gore backed tax-exempt status for schools that racially discriminate.
  4. That Gore would eliminate affirmative action.
  5. That Gore prefers big tobacco to Medicare recipients.
  6. That Gore was a conservative congressman.
  7. That Gore was a “poster child” for the National Rifle Association.
  8. That Gore changed his position on abortion.
  9. That Gore mumbles and dances to disguise his position on guns.
  10. That Gore steers clear of bold proposals.
  11. That Gore won’t come clean about the campaign-finance scandal of 1996.
  12. That Gore would increase defense spending more than education.
  13. That as a congressman, Gore had no interest in health care or education.
  14. That Gore wouldn’t increase Head Start spending by as much as Bradley would.
  15. That Gore caved on allowing death-row inmates to challenge racial disparities in sentencing.
  16. That Gore backed a welfare reform that hurt poor children.

Gore’s Charges Against Bradley:

  1. That New Jersey is the state “where racial profiling practically began.”
  2. That Bradley was the only Democratic senator to vote against affirmative action to expand the number of black-owned broadcasting outlets.
  3. That Bradley is attacking Gore out of desperation.
  4. That Bradley’s health-care plan would hurt Medicaid recipients. 
  5. That Bradley’s health-care plan would hurt AIDS patients.
  6. That under Bradley’s plan, senior citizens would have to pay an $800 deductible for prescription-drug benefits.
  7. That Bradley sets no money aside from the budget surplus for Medicare.
  8. That Bradley is distracting Democrats from the fight against “the real enemy–right-wing, extremist, Confederate-flag-waving Republicans.”
  9. That Bradley quit the Senate when the going got tough.
  10. That Bradley missed a vote on handguns because he was out fund raising.
  11. That Bradley is attacking Gore merely to get things off his chest.
  12. That Bradley questions the character of people who disagree with him.
  13. That Bradley has questioned the character of NARAL and AFL-CIO leaders because they support Gore.
  14. That Bradley “confuses disagreement with somebody not being a good person.”
  15. That Bradley wants a new special prosecutor to investigate Democrats.
  16. That Bradley is “the only Democrat in America who misses Ken Starr.”
  17. That Bradley voted for vouchers “every time they came up” in the Senate.
  18. That Bradley lacks the support of blacks in New Jersey.
  19. That Bradley likes the old welfare system that trapped people in poverty.
  20. That Bradley has a patronizing attitude toward the Congressional Black Caucus.
  21. That Bradley has a patronizing attitude toward poor blacks.

Though Gore got off more shots, most of them were retaliatory and defensive. Bradley was, for the first time in a Democratic debate, the true aggressor. He came loaded for bear and fired every time he saw a shadow. At one point, Bradley tried to serve the vice president with a sheaf of papers purporting to document Gore’s record in support of preserving the tax deduction for racially discriminatory schools. It was like Gore’s handshake ploy two months ago, only in reverse. Just as Bradley wouldn’t shake Gore’s hand on Meet the Press, Gore wouldn’t touch Bradley’s subpoena tonight. At other times, you could hear Bradley emitting the little sighs that Gore used to use to express his annoyance with his opponent. It was, if nothing else, a startling role reversal.

It would take several days of work to sort out the rights and wrongs of all Bradley’s charges, not to mention Gore’s. Bradley said that Gore voted five times between 1979 and 1981 in favor of preventing the IRS from denying tax-exempt-status to schools that racially discriminate, such as Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Bradley added that Trent Lott was on the same side of the issue as Gore was. In response, Gore said that the bills he voted against 20 years ago would have punished any school that didn’t use minority quotas. Gore also pointed out that the amendments in question passed by wide margins in a Democratically controlled Congress.  

It’s probably worth getting to the bottom of this matter later on, if only because if Bradley is right, it could cost Gore a fine issue against George W. Bush in fall–assuming that Bush is the Republican nominee. But the more immediate question is why Bradley waited until now to go ballistic against his opponent. Bradley tonight was like a ferocious guard dog, furiously barking and baring his fangs. The only problem was that the burglars emptied the house several hours ago, while he was sound asleep.

Gore may have happened upon an insight when he described his opponent as wanting to “get something off his chest.” Bradley’s behavior tonight felt like more of a personal effusion than a political one. In his heart, he must know he’s not going to win. But he’s angry that Gore wronged him and wants to even the score a bit before he bows out. In other words, Bradley’s isn’t looking for the Democratic nomination any longer. He’s just looking for closure.