Comparing himself to John F. Kennedy attempting to win Protestant votes in 1960, Ronald Reagan today appealed to black voters not to consider him "a caricature conservative" who is "anti-poor, anti-black and anti-disadvantaged."
Republican presidential nominee made his appeal in a speech to the National Urban League, a speech that was unusually substantive and conciliatory in tone. Abandoning his customary generality that anything that boosts the economy also benefits blacks, Reagan called for the creation of inner-city "enterprise zones" where taxes would be substantially reduced and regulations relaxed to encourage industry and new jobs. Within hours of his speech, however, Reagan met the hard reality of the South Bronx. Standing in a rubblestrewn lot where President Carter on Oct. 5, 1977, had promised new federally sponsored housing and a job training center, Reagan accused his presumed Democratic opponent of making promises he could not keep.
Reagan soon found himself in a shouting match with members of the People's Coalition, a local self-help group whose spokesman expressed disgust with Carter and skepticism about Reagan.
When one woman member of the coalition repeatedly asked Reagan what he would do to help them, he lost his temper and shouted back: "I can't do a damn thing for you if I don't get elected."
Later, on a flight to Chicago, Reagan expressed regret that he had lost his temper. "i'm sure there were many deliberate hecklers in there," he said. "But I think most of them wanted to hear and just got upset when they thought they weren't going to have their say." ,
The 50 or so persons gathered at the vacant lot in front of a gutted building bearing the freshly painted word Decay," at first jeered Reagan and chanted, "Talk to the people an not to the press." But some members of the coalition applauded, and others listened seriously as Reagan again restated his basic message that private industry assisted by federal tax incentives, must take the lead in restoring the devasted area.
Patrick Lochrane, a Franciscan monk who is head of the local planning district and a leader of the People's Coalition, greeted Reagan cordially and expressed hope that the Republican candidate would be more successful than Carter in helping the South Bronx. "This area is exactly what it was when Carter came here three years ago, and the feeling of the people is worse," Lochrane said. "Our hopes were built up and then were totally destroyed." What he wants Reagan to do, Lochrane said, is commit himself to a program where local residents are given preferential hiring on housing projects build in the area. Reagan's solution, expressed both on the garbage-strewn lot and earlier in the more sedate setting of the New York Hilton ballroom, is for designation of depressed urban area as enterprise zones -- a favorite proposal of New York Rep. Jack F. kEmp, the source of a number of Reagan's economic ideas.
"Enterprise zones would remove many of the barriers to investment and job creation," REAGAN SAID IN HIS urban League speech, one of his rare appearances before a mostly black audience. "Thus, enterpreneurs would be encouraged to start new enterprises and to put people in the zone to work."
Reagan had other specific proposals, too. He urged a youth differential in the minimum wage, which he asserted would encourage employers to hire unskilled black teen-agers, a contention many Democrats desagree with.And he called for a "comprehensive urban homesteading program" that would agree to maintain the homes and live in them.
Beyond his advocacy of specific programs, Reagan sought to demonstrate that he is something more than a western conservative insensitive too the plight of minorities and poor people who live in eastern cities.
He compared himself to Kennedy, addressing an audience of Protestant ministers in 1960 and trying to convince them that his Catholicism would not affect the conduct of his presidency.
Many historians regard the Kennedy speech as playing a significant role in his election because he effectively and openly confronted the issue of religious prejudice.
Regan also had immediate political goals, including an appeal to black voters and to white moderates who are skeptical of Reagan's urban commitment.
Ron McDuffie, a black who was former presidential candidate John B. Connally's liasion to the black community, observed that Gerald Ford lost the 1976 election because he failed to win a few thousand black votes in Ohio and Mississippi.
"We just can't go on giving 96 percent of the black vote away in election after election," McDuffie said.
The Reagan speech was circulated in advance to several black leaders for advice and consultation. Some of them suggested that Reagan make a specific declaration favoring "affirmative action."
Instead, Reagan inserted in his speech the following words: "I am committed to the protection of the civil rights of black Americans. This commitment is interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose."
Martin Anderson, Reagan's chief domestic adviser, said this meant that Reagan would uphold antidiscrimination laws, including affirmative action programs, but that he did not favor establishing "quota systems" for minority hiring.
Reagan made one other insert in his speech -- a statement that "we will not rest" until the assailant of wounded Urban League President Vernon E. Jordan Jr. is brought to justice.
Reagan visited Jordan in Jordan's New York hospital room on Monday.
Reagan used a portion of his speech to castigate the Carter administration for promising prosperity but delivering an economic recession instead.
"Can any black American look to the past four years and say to this administration: 'A job well done'?" Reagan asked. "Can he or she seriously proclaim: 'let's have four more years of this.'?"
As evidence that he would do better, Reagan pointed to his eight-year record as govenor of California and his successful support of job development legislation and a state loan guarantee program that assisted minority business. l
Reagan also said, accurately, that the number of black employes had increased 23 percent during his administration. What he did not say was that this increase started from an exceptionally low base and that many of those hired were civil service workers who would have been hired regardless of who was governor.
Reagan said later that he had been "politely greeted" at the convention and that he hadn't expected "an enthusiastic reception."
On the subject of President Carter's news conference Monday night, Reagan said he thought Carter "got away with one hour of free TV for a political appearance."