PHILADELPHIA MAYOR W. Wilson Goode is demonstrating that Teflon comes in all colors. With the same seeming political impunity that followed some of President Reagan's worst and seemingly unforgiveable blunders, Philadelphia's first black mayor is deflecting the fallout from the incredible May 13 bombing that left 11 persons dead, including four children, and 53 families homeless.
Six of every 10 Philadelphians polled immediately afterwards said they supported Goode's actions. Fewer than three of 10 interviewed said they disapproved.
Like Reagan -- who waded through the aftermath of disaster in Beirut, appeared incoherent at moments in both nationally televised campaign debates and most recently, visited a German war cemetery in Bitburg despite vociferous complaints that he was being insensitive -- Goode is showing that the media's assumptions about the public's expectations and priorities aren't always reflected by the public.
Reagan's landslide electoral victory last year still puzzles analysts who cannot understand how so many voters could have disagreed with the president on so many specific issues and still have voted for him.
Now Goode is baffling conventional political wisdom with a performance that is being criticized more by the media, civil-rights leaders and politicians from outside Philadelphia than by his constituents.
Despite neighborhood protests, Goode temporized for months before the showdown with MOVE, a radical, back-to-nature group. After the debacle, Goode revealed himself to have been a commander-in-chief frighteningly unaware of what was really going on and trusting vital decisions to a cadre of top aides who some critics claimed were insensitive and ill-prepared.
In his explanations after the crisis, Goode repeatedly tripped over facts and contradicted his own statements as well as those of the same top aides. His responses often raised more questions than they answered, and he appeared to show little of the "take- charge" demeanor on which he had built so much popularity during the first 18 months of his administration.
Questions such as whether Goode handled the MOVE affair properly and whether his actions -- and the reaction to them -- would have been different if the MOVE house had been in a white neighborhood will be debated endlessly elsewhere. The political question, however, is how Goode has been able to repel the damage, especially among blacks.
It was middle-income blacks, after all, whose homes were gutted when Goode's plan went awry. Ten of the 11 persons who died were black. And as recently as 13 months ago, when Goode actively endorsed Walter F. Mondale for the Democratic presidential nomination, 75 percent of the city's black voters rebuffed him in the primary and cast their ballots for Jesse L. Jackson.
Like Reagan, however, Goode is proving to be a skilled politician. His success on the local level, like Reagan's on the national, may well be due to a public atmosphere less skeptical of elected leadership than in earlier years. After Reagan visited the Bitburg cemetery, which contained the graves of 49 Waffen SS soldiers, many Americans applauded him for standing firm against criticism, even if they would have preferred him not to have made the visit. He was, they said, elected to make decisions. In Philadelphia, Goode, too, has been credited with making a tough decision, owning up to it and standing tall in the face of adversity.
The Reagan-Goode Teflon equation has at least two things in common:
Both men have so strongly established a favorable public image that when their actions fail to square with the image, the actions are either disregarded by the public or blamed on others. "People know that this mayor is committed. This mayor is a church deacon," said Philadelphia City Councilman Lucien E. Blackwell, who represents the neighborhood where the homes were destroyed. "This mayor would never advocate killing people, and they know that."
The other shared characteristic is a sense of picking the right enemies. Reagan had Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Party leadership with little public standing to kick around. In this instance, Goode had MOVE, an organization that had long since worn out its welcome in the City of Brotherly Love.
As Goode's critics grope for explanations for the relative lack of public outrage, one of the most frequent answers is that Goode is black. Would-be critics are reluctant to fault the city's first black mayor, the argument goes. If former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, a tough, law-and-order ex-police-commissioner, had bombed a black neighborhood in West Philly, there would have been a volcanic uproar.
This free-ride theory misses the point, and polling data, old and new, suggests why.
In the two days after the bombing, fire and deaths, KRC Research of Cambridge, Mass., interviewed 350 persons, 43 percent of them black, for KYW-TV in Philadelphia. The poll found that 61 percent of those interviewed said they approved of the handling of the situation by Goode and the police, and that about 25 percent disapproved.
Blacks interviewed were generally more critical than whites of Goode's actions, more skeptical about the police and more tolerant of MOVE. Yet, two of every three blacks supported Goode's actions; half supported those of the police and half said the use of force was justified. Two-thirds said they considered MOVE very dangerous or somewhat dangerous and three of every four said MOVE's lifestyle should not be tolerated in Philadelphia. MOVE apparently lacked even the limited community support that the Black Panther Party enjoyed during its confrontations with the police a decade ago.
The poll results should not be surprising. As the principal victims of crime, blacks basically are moderate-conservative on crime and criminal-justice issues, and that apparently is how many perceived the showdown with MOVE -- a battle, more or less, between cops and robbers.
Ever since the nation discovered black-on- black crime in the late 1960s, it has been apparent that many blacks would rather lock the brother up and throw away the key than give the brother a break because he is a victim of society. Oddly enough, a Gallup Poll taken in early 1982 suggested that whites were more inclined to be forgiving.
Respondents were asked if they thought it was more important to punish lawbreakers or rehabilitate them. Among whites, 61 percent favored rehabilitation compared to 28 percent for punishment, a 2-1 margin. Among blacks, 49 percent were for rehabilitation and 42 percent for punishment, almost an even split.
"Richard Nixon wasn't wrong in 1968" (when he was saying that blacks were for law and order more than whites), said pollster Peter D. Hart. So many blacks saw Nixon as hostile to their interests on nearly every issue, however, that his argument was not taken credibly, Hart said.
The advent of popular black mayors and black police chiefs in many major American cities allowed the law-and-order issue to be divorced from race. In Detroit, torn by race riots in the late '60s, a black mayor, Coleman A. Young, boldly took on the city's predominantly black street gangs in 1976 with provocative, law-and-order rhetoric. "The baddest gang in town is the Detroit police department," he taunted. "If you don't believe it, let's get it on." Few white mayors could have gotten away with that challenge.
In the District of Columbia, generally considered a bastion of political liberalism, 70 percent of the registered voters are black. In 1982, Washington voters rejected the advice of the city's collective political leadership and approved by a margin of nearly 3-1 a referendum mandating prison terms for some offenders.
Philadelphia City Councilman Blackwell was asked after the bombing why there had been such harsh criticism of Rizzo's assault on a MOVE headquarters in 1978, which left one policeman dead, but all but the MOVE house intact, and so little of Goode's, with its far more disastrous consequences.
"We felt that Frank Rizzo did not respect minorities in this city and the problem with MOVE was perceived as a racial problem," Blackwell said. Given a choice between being pro-Rizzo or pro-MOVE, many blacks chose MOVE -- including Blackwell. "At one time, I was a strong MOVE supporter, a strong MOVE sympathizer," he said.
This time, the mayor was black and receiving favorable job ratings from 9 of every 10 persons polled -- black and white. A nearly all-black group of MOVE members was in a black neighborhood, harassing black residents, who were clamoring for the black mayor to do something about rats, feces in the yard, and loudspeakers blaring obscenities day and night, Blackwell said.
"So the people realized that this is not a racial thing. These poor folks had done nothing to MOVE . . . . This has to do with people who have a philosophy they want to impose on other people."
Simply stated, the bottom line political choice had changed: Church-going, law-abiding, mainstream citizens, who happened to be black, or MOVE. Goode stood with the citizens. He may not have been perfect, but he was easier to embrace.
And that is what Teflon is all about -- bottom-line choices. Reagan has been capitalizing on it for years, and now Goode, apparently, has patented his own variation. Politicians with Teflon don't have to be the best thing in the world, just way ahead of whomever's in second place.