At a site of considerable black pride in a neighborhood where that's in short supply, Bill Bradley promised a group of black medical students today that better health insurance could help close America's racial divide.
Bradley spoke at Morehouse School of Medicine, one of the country's four predominantly minority medical schools, where he reeled off the statistical toll of unaffordable health care in minority communities--shorter life expectancies and higher rates of infant deaths.
"I'd like to increase the number of people with health insurance in this country, I'd like to decrease the number of children in poverty and I'd like us to find a deeper level of racial understanding and harmony for each of us and for all of us simultaneously," Bradley said.
Bradley followed his appeals with his bluntest attack yet on Vice President Gore. Bradley accused him of "scare tactics" for his assertion that Bradley's health plan would disproportionately hurt black and Latino citizens because it would eliminate Medicaid, which serves the poor, as part of his proposal to make coverage available to almost everyone.
"I don't want a politics that uses people who are poor as political footballs," Bradley said. "I want a politics that brings people together to lift up the possibilities of people who are poor in this country."
One of Bradley's signature statements is, "Racial unity is who I am," yet polls consistently show him lagging Gore among black voters. Bradley's advisers say that is because few voters know him this early in the campaign. They point out that President Clinton's support remains solid in the African American community and that Gore is "the default position" for voters who know little about Bradley.
Trying to fill in the blanks for today's audience, Bradley told how he had grown up in the "multi-racial, multi-ethnic" town of Crystal City, Mo., where the Little League team was integrated before the schools. He said that when his team played in the state's southern boot heel, which sticks down into Arkansas, some hamburger places wouldn't serve the team's African American catcher or leftfielder.
"So we left the restaurant, time and time again," he said. "We stayed in hotels that were not really great because those were the hotels that would accept all of us--and we were a team, and we stayed together. And so those early moments were imprinted on me."
In this audience, he got a louder than usual ripple of "Mmm-mmm" for his oft-told tale about the teacher who asked how many of her pupils had eaten breakfast. She pressed the few who were silent and one little girl finally said, "It wasn't my turn to eat today."
"I want to be president to use the power of that office to do good," Bradley said. "So when people say, 'You know, we're never going to eliminate child poverty,' in a world of new possibilities guided by goodness, we can."
Many black leaders consider Morehouse School of Medicine to be a miracle, created in 1975 as a result of its founders' creative appeal for state and federal funds. Originally it was a program of Morehouse College, one of the country's best-known black colleges, but now it is independent. The school's mission is to train doctors for rural and urban areas.
The crowd spilled into an adjoining room, where a television hook-up had been set up. Kelly Smith III, 20, a junior at Morehouse College and grandson of a civil rights leader, said Bradley's plan seemed well-intentioned but impractical. "You have to be wisely inclusive," he said. Smith sat with a group of Gore supporters. But Howard Aubert, 21, a senior, came on his own and said Bradley "should have talked about where he's going to cut at in order to get the money."
Bradley found a friend in the audio-visual technician, Jeremy L. Thompson-Brown, 24, who said he has no health insurance. "I want to say he's like a Kennedy, but I don't want to curse him," Brown said.
Bradley was introduced today by Roger Wilkins, the former civil rights leader and now a professor at George Mason University.
Four hours later, Bradley greeted another important Democratic constituency as he schmoozed with delegates to the United Jewish Communities General Assembly meeting here.