"How do they intend to handle it at your office?" the cabbie wanted to know. "Will they cancel vacations, or try to do it with overtime?"
I told him I didn't know what he was talking about.
"You know what I'm talking about," he said. "You remember how the media went into turbo-charged action when Jesse Jackson said the 'Hymie' word. Well, I assume they're gearing up to do the same thing with Bob Dole. What do you think they'll call it? 'The Big Lip Slip'?"
So that was it. Dole has been involved in a running feud with Randall Robinson, director of TransAfrica, who thinks the newly announced presidential candidate is soft on apartheid. The feud broke into the open last March, when TransAfrica placed ads in two Iowa newspapers branding Dole as a "face behind apartheid." I reviewed all that with the cabbie.
"Well, if you remember all that," he said, "you remember the rest of it. When Iowa reporters pushed Dole for a response, he called Robinson a 'big-lip liberal.' Later on, he told Larry King that Robinson was looking for someone, namely Dole, to be 'the tar baby' on the apartheid issue. So what I want to know is, what is the media waiting for?"
I thought it was time for a little cool-headed reflection. To begin with, I told the cabbie, Dole wasn't call-ing Robinson a "tar baby." He wasn't even saying that tar babies are bad. He was only saying that he didn't want to get stuck with the pro-apartheid label.
As far as the "big-lip" thing was concerned, Dole's people say he was misquoted. I told him I had spoken with a Dole spokesperson who said the UPI reporter had misunderstood Dole. "What he said was 'big-lib liberal,' " she told me. "When he talks about very liberal people, he calls them 'big-lib liberals,' " she explained. "UPI later ran a retraction."
The cabbie wasn't satisfied. "When Jesse Jackson said the words 'Hymie' and 'Hymietown,' he wasn't saying that Jews were bad. The point is, he used an expression that Jews found offensive, and that was enough to get the media going."
I told him he was overlooking the fact that the Jewish suspicions of Jackson's supposed anti-Semitism didn't begin with the 'Hymie' remarks, that they had been upset over his general approach to the Middle East and in particular with his photographed embrace of the PLO's Yasser Arafat.
"And TransAfrica's suspicions of Dole didn't begin with the 'big lip' and 'tar baby' remarks," the cabbie said. "Randall was already upset because Dole was the main guy behind Reagan's veto of South African sanctions. What TransAfrica has been saying is that Dole is taking a pro-South Africa approach to tighten up his standing with right-wing Republicans. He's treating South Africa as a throwaway issue, and here you are defending him. Are you going to defend that 'big lip' remark too?"
I repeated the explanation from Dole's aide that the candidate had been misunderstood.
"Yeah, I know," the cabbie said. "What he really said was 'big lib,' right? Too bad Jesse didn't have somebody slick enough to explain away his 'Hymie' remark."
"What possible explanation could there have been?" I demanded.
"Try this," the cabbie said. "Jesse was talking about his plan to put black people to work. He was going to have us march right up to the big employers and say, 'Hire me!' He was predicting that the campaign would be so successful in New York City that they would name the place 'Hire Me Town.' Unfortunately, because of Jesse's South Carolina accent, it came out 'Hiah me' and 'Hiah Me Town.' The reporter simply misunderstood him. How's that?"
"Ridiculous," I told him. "Who would ever have believed such an explanation?"
"The same people who believe that business about 'big lib,' " the cabbie said.