Race and the G.O.P.
DAVID Letterman. Late Night. Top Ten. Home Office. Paul Schaffer. Jay Leno. Lee Atwater. Chris Elliott...
If you're asking what he's got to do with David Letterman, you're not alone. Neither are the thousands who watched their T.V.s in amazement as the recently-appointed chair of the Republican National Committee played guitar with Schaffer's Late Night Band earlier this week.
Letterman used the occasion to get a cheap laugh. "Take a look at the band," he told the audience. "Now you tell me which one's the Republican." That wasn't too hard, given that Atwater was the only one wearing a three-piece, navy blue suit.
OBVIOUSLY, Atwater wasn't on the show just so Letterman could poke fun at him. So just what was Atwater doing on Late Night?
The question's really not as perplexing as it sounds. The key to the answer? Three easy steps:
1. Recall Atwater's love for Black music, especially rhythm-and-blues.
2. Remember the Republicans' desperate desire to break the Democrats' choke hold on the Black vote.
3. Mix 1 & 2 together and see what you get.
During his widely publicized campaign to attract Blacks to the Republican Party, Atwater has been trying to gain the Black community's trust. Part of his offensive has been rhetorical. "We [the Republican Party] have a good message--a message of equal opportunity and strong values that are shared by all Americans," Atwater wrote in the Washington Post last week.
On other fronts Atwater has made his campaign a personal crusade. He's been hustling around Washington playing his guitar at rhythm-and-blues clubs, and he participated in a joint concert with Black blues singer B.B. King. And, yes, he's appeared on David Letterman.
If nothing else, Atwater's efforts to show that he can sympathize with Black concerns and lifestyles have created a stir in the national media. Pictures of the chairman strumming away have occasionally shown up on front pages ever since the November election.
BUT the media glare will mean little unless Atwater can show the Black community that he's really offering it something worth a second look. So far, events have shown that Atwater hasn't been too convincing.
Last week's massive student protest at Howard University against Atwater's appointment to the school's board of trustees--and Atwater's subsequent resignation--was a great setback for the former aide to both Senator Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.), a one-time segregationist, and President Reagan.
Howard's decision this January to put Atwater on the board of the preeminent Black unviersity represented a Republican coup. From such a position, the former Bush campaign manager could have greatly expanded his ties to and planted seeds of mutual trust in the Black community.
But the Howard students didn't buy the rationale for having Atwater on the board. They argued that Atwater's role in Bush's recent campaign, which many believe played on white racist fears, was more important than the money Atwater could attract to Howard from fellow Republicans. The $179 million in federal funds that Howard received this year could not obscure Atwater's masterminding of a dirty campaign which included the racially-tinged Willie Horton issue.
The students were right calling for Atwater's resignation. Though most Republicans are hardly bigoted, the Republican Party has been attracting an increasing number of white racists as they flee the Democratic Party. The results of this flight were recently demonstrated when Ex-Klansman and Nazi David Duke was elected to the Louisiania state legislature as a Republican. Although Atwater and the party's executive committee voted to censure him, it's telling that Duke says he feels at home in the party.
Because it's been so conducive to whites like Duke, the Republican Party has garnered little backing among the Black community, a group which has given no more than 12 percent of its votes to recent Republican presidential candidates. As head of the G.O.P., Atwater should not hold a position from which he could make important policy decisions affecting people who have consistently rejected the ideas for which both he and his party stand.
BUT the setback should not overshadow the importance and possible benefits of Atwater's labors. Blacks can gain from Atwater's efforts if they stop voting as a block and make both parties work to earn their votes. As it now stands, Democrats can virtually take Black votes for granted. With Republican competition for upper- and middle class Blacks, Democrats will have to become more responsive to Black needs.
And all Americans stand to gain from the achievement of a well-integrated polity. Such a goal is important for a country which purports to grant equal protection to all races, religions and creeds.
Though Atwater claims the country has already "entered into a post-civil rights era; civil rights are not the driving force," racial politics are still with us. As demonstrated by the continuing southern white switch to the Republican Party and the heavy Black vote for civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, civil rights are still an issue.
But such politics must end before this country will ever achieve the non-discriminatory, color-blind society to which the Constitution aspires. If Lee Atwater can help bring us closer to such a society by showing all that their interests transcend color, the more power to him. Strike up the band.