President Hails Black Support
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page A18
President Clinton waded into friendly territory before thousands of African American leaders and activists last night, as he braced for what could be a major embarrassment on Monday with the release of his videotaped grand jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky sex and perjury case.
The president, along with Vice President Gore, received a rousing standing ovation as he entered the ballroom in the Washington Convention Center for the Congressional Black Caucus dinner, and scores of people lined up to embrace him and offer words of encouragement. And Clinton, who has appeared drawn and tentative in some of his most recent outings, appeared invigorated by the response.
Looking up from his prepared speech, he thanked the caucus and black America for "standing up for me and understanding the true meaning of repentance and atonement." He never directly mentioned Lewinsky or independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, whose report to Congress could lead to an impeachment inquiry. Nor did he apologize and ask for forgiveness as he had done several times in recent weeks.
But clearly, the vast majority of the 5,000 or so people on hand were on his side. The crowd came to its feet twice, clapping and cheering, as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the caucus, introduced Clinton. She explained why blacks were proving to be such a loyal constituency: "It is because African Americans are uniquely qualified to know unfairness when we see it."
After he offered a brief thanks "from the heart," Clinton launched into the standard speech, with a few deviations, that he gives at fund-raisers and events around the country, touting the administration's efforts to reduce crime and improve the economy, among other things. But the speech sounded punchier and more spirited than it has lately as he ripped the Republican Congress for everything from holding up meaningful health care reform and the African trade bill to impeding funding for the International Monetary Fund.
Repeatedly, and with emphasis, he proclaimed, "We cannot rest. We have work to do."
For about a half-hour after his speech ended and even as people were filing out of the convention center, Clinton stayed, shaking hands and hugging supporters.
"What this means to me is that he is an accessible president," said Christopher Emanuel, a senior at the University of Southern California, after he shook Clinton's hand. "He likes people and people like him. That's why 64 percent of the people support him in his darkest hour."
Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater, one of the numerous high-ranking African American officials Clinton has appointed, said the appearance was "a big boost for him. It was a big boost for us."
Nearly 20,000 politicians, community activists, policy wonks and pollsters from around the country attended this year's 28th annual Congressional Black Caucus conference, which focused on a range of issues confronting blacks as the country heads into the next millennium. But the thematic undercurrent of almost every event was the ordeal facing Clinton and its potential to affect issues important to many black voters.
Much of the past few days at the conference has been devoted to finding ways to motivate blacks to vote. At a forum attended by more than 200 people yesterday, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) said those in the room would serve as the catalyst to energize voters back home in their communities to vote.
Pollster Ron Lester released a survey he conducted for the Democratic National Committee last month that suggests blacks could play a crucial role in the Nov. 3 congressional elections. And several others speakers emphasized the importance in the black vote in the outside chance that Democrats could take back the House.
"We have an opportunity to not only change the Congress but save America on Nov. 3," said the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, a former D.C. delegate. Fauntroy noted that a Democratic-majority Congress could immediately end the sex and perjury investigation of Clinton, which blacks overwhelmingly feel is based on partisan GOP attack tactics.
In recent weeks, most pollsters and political analysts have downgraded the chances of Democrats to pick up seats or take control of the House. But several people argued yesterday that blacks could be motivated to come out in greater than usual numbers to vote this year. Given the tendency of black voters to cast their ballots for Democrats, their efforts could help determine more than two dozen competitive House races this year.
The past four years have marked a notable rise in partisanship among blacks, who have long been the Democratic party's most loyal constituency, said Lester. Four years ago, as the Republicans were trouncing Democrats in elections around the country and taking control of Congress, about 74 percent of black voters identified themselves as Democrats. That figure is up to about 82 percent now, Lester said.
Also, 84 percent of blacks said they would vote for Democrats and 13 percent for Republicans in November. "This is the highest generic ballot we've seen in over 15 years," Lester said.
"I think that it's important now that if we're going to get this issue off of Clinton, we've got to change Congress and get some of those crazy right-wing people out of there," said Tony Hill, a state representative from Florida.
Not everyone, however, was a Clinton fan. Larry Tate, a 26-year-old writer who lives in the District, questioned blacks' "boot-licking" loyalty to the president. Tate complained about Clinton's support for issues controversial among blacks, such as the Crime Bill and welfare reform and his silence on allegations that the CIA peddled crack in black communities. He called Clinton's advisory board on race a "minstrel show."
"I think we got snowed by him playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show," Tate said, to a small chorus of boos at a forum yesterday.
There was plenty of other business conducted during the four-day event. The caucus declared AIDS a national public health emergency in the African American community. And the conference featured forums on a range of issues, from violence in schools, welfare-to-work, and black farmers and agricultural reform.
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.
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