President Reagan, playing host to 75 friendly black ministers from across the country, including a dozen recent converts to the Republican party from Prince George's County, yesterday defended his administration against charges that it does not care about minorities and the poor.
The president said he hoped the lunch would be part of a dialogue to ease concerns about his programs within the black community.
"If I believed some of the things I've heard and read about this administration, I'd be concerned too," Reagan said, touting recent declines in the rate of inflation and removal of waste from job-training programs.
After the luncheon, and a two-hour briefing session with Vice President Bush, some of the ministers agreed that the president was misunderstood within the black community and urged him to take steps to change his image.
"The president needs to get out and get involved," said the Rev. Hosea Williams of Atlanta. "There's a growing anti-Reagan mood in the black community," Williams said.
"I would strongly suggest that Mr. Reagan accept invitations to the bosom of black misery," said the Rev. Jerry Moore, a Republican D. C. Councilman.
The Rev. Perry Smith, one of the newly minted Prince George's Republicans, said he was surprised to be seated at the president's table after only five weeks in the party.
Smith said Prince George's was so well represented at the lunch of braised beef and rice pilaf (there were 15 clergymen there from the county, but the other three had been in the party for some time), because the occasion was used to welcome them to the GOP.
Sitting so close to Reagan, Smith said, he was able to tell him of his plans to run for Congress from Maryland's fifth district. "He said he looked forward to it," said Smith, and "I plan to cash in on that."
White House presss spokesman Larry Speakes said there was no connection between the invitations to the Prince George's ministers and hopes of the party for increasing its showing among blacks at next fall's elections.
"I don't link it to a strategy for the elections," Speakes said. "Certainly we welcome Republicans from wherever they come--and we'll welcome their votes in the fall," he added.
In remarks before the press, Reagan said despite his proposal to cut funds for job training programs from $3.2 billion to $1.8 billion this year actual spending on actual job training would increase from $592 million to $1.3 billion.
"It seems that in the previous program there was a certain amount of overhead," Reagan commented, drawing laughter and applause from the ministers.
Smith said Reagan answered his concerns about the effect of transferring responsibility for social programs to the states, which have in the past been less sensitive to minority concerns than the federal government.
"He promised to protect the civil rights of people on the point of a bayonet," said Smith. But as with other ministers interviewed after the lunch, Smith stopped short of a full endorsement of the Reagan program.
"The man said it, I have to give him the opportunity to do it. If it does not work, I will be the first to say something," Smith said.
The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, former associate of the late Martin Luther King and an early black Reagan supporter, said he asked the president when funds would be available for new jobs programs, particularly the Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development (FEED), his new Atlanta based organization.
"He did not get an opportunity to answer," Abernathy said, "but I will speak with him in person about it later."
While the ministers were dining upstairs, Speakes told reporters in the press room that the president had told his cabinet members yesterday morning to continue to resist congressional attempts to overspend the budget.
"The president wants to make absolutely sure his own adminstration holds the line," Speakes said.