Among my favorite college memories is sitting in journalism class one morning with classmates, most of them white, as our professor read to us then-Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz's now-infamous comment about what "coloreds" want: "a tight [vagina]," "loose shoes" and "a warm place" to go to the toilet.
After a tense pause, Mike, a tall and acerbic white classmate, blurted, "But isn't that what everyone wants?"
Beneath the explosion of laughter was a lesson: Even seemingly outrageous statements may contain a nugget of truth.
Or a boulder. Donna Brazile, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's campaign manager, was recently excoriated by Republicans for saying in an interview: "Al Gore and Bill Clinton have worked hard for the last seven years to improve the lives of African Americans and Hispanics. . . . The Republicans bring out Colin Powell and J.C. Watts because they have no program, no policy. . . . They'd rather take pictures with black children than feed them."
Now most black folks see Brazile's "controversial" words as straight-up truth. Yet black Rep. Watts of Oklahoma wrote to Gore, complaining that the remarks were "racist" and degrading "to our entire society." He said Brazile was "attacking black Republicans for not caring about other blacks"--a "cheap political stunt."
I think Brazile--who was fired from Michael Dukakis's 1988 campaign for raising rumors about George Bush's personal life--didn't mean to attack black Republicans but their party for neglecting minorities. Still, the estimable Powell responded by defending his charity work, and Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson and co-Chairman Pat Harrison actually urged Gore to fire Brazile for "race-baiting."
No wonder Gore and Brazile phoned Powell to explain themselves.
In the the midst of all this Brazile-bashing, a counter-response by black Republican activist Faye M. Anderson seems stunning. Anderson, a self-described "hell-raiser" whose weekly column, the Capitol Report, appears on the politicallyblack.com Web site, told fellow GOP members that Brazile was "saying the obvious: The GOP has a problem with black folks."
What Brazile should have said, Anderson wrote in her column, was that presidential front-runner George W. Bush's Louisiana state campaign chairman was fined for failing to disclose a $150,000 payment to genuine racist David Duke. Brazile should have cited Bush's refusal to urge South Carolina to remove the Confederate battle flag--a symbol of forces that sought to keep millions enslaved--from its statehouse because it's "a local issue." Never mind that he has weighed in on numerous local issues across the nation, including an art exhibit in Anderson's native Brooklyn.
Brazile, she wrote, should have mentioned the GOP's "rank hypocrisy" in impeaching President Clinton for lying about sex with a subordinate when their leader, Newt Gingrich, also was involved in such hanky-panky. Then there was House Republicans' refusal to support a resolution condemning the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens--a group that GOP heavyweights Trent Lott and Bob Barr have addressed.
Whew. What's a woman with insights like Anderson's doing in a party like that?
Trying to make a difference, Anderson insists. African Americans can't spur significant change as long as most are tethered to the Democrats--and can thus be "written off" by the GOP.
"The Clinton administration, to its credit, had appointees who look like America," Anderson admits. "But the big picture is about influencing public policy. You can't do that when all of your eggs are in one basket."
Brazile's mistake was mentioning Colin Powell, a genuine icon "who has been very critical of the party," Anderson says. Though the GOP "would love to trot him out, he doesn't play that role." By invoking him, Brazile "allowed [Republicans] to take cover" and to ignore her words' substance.
To Anderson, any party whose major presidential candidates won't tell South Carolina what it can do with the Confederate battle flag needs some flak.
"All this talk about 'southern heritage' " she fumes. "Can you imagine anyone defending the right of German-Americans to publicly display the swastika because, "My Nazi forefather fought with pride?
"What are they thinking?"
About the upcoming South Carolina primary, natch. But this immoral, short-term tack could exact a future toll. Democrats, who routinely get 80-plus percent of the black vote, "don't need to drive a wedge between Republicans and black folks" says Anderson. It's already there.
As for black Republicans, "sometimes we have to hold our noses," Anderson admits. "But the only way to change the party is to participate."
For now, Donna Brazile is holding her tongue--sort of. Reached on the campaign trail, she said, "I don't know what the first black pilot or teacher went through, but the first black female [presidential] campaign manager is taking a vow of silence. Al Gore put his career in my hands and I'm going to bring him through the White House door.
"And then spend the rest of my life rededicating myself to those who have no voice."
CAPTION: The GOP didn't like Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile's comments.