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GOP can transform politics with African-American vote

Published Aug. 6, 2000|Updated Sep. 27, 2005

In a pleasantly meandering conversation over lunch in San Francisco last summer, Condoleezza Rice, then still provost of Stanford but already unofficially what she now is officially, George W. Bush's senior foreign policy adviser, was asked her thoughts about gun control. "I am," she answered crisply, "a Second Amendment absolutist." Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., in the early 1960s, when racial tensions rose, there were, she said, occasions when the black community had to exercise its right to bear arms in self-defense, becoming, if you will, a well-regulated militia.

Last week's Republican convention got acquainted with Rice's economical and lucid way of speaking her formidable mind. For example:

"My father joined our party because the Democrats in Jim Crow Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote. The Republicans did. I want you to know that my father has never forgotten that day, and neither have I.

"I joined the party for different reasons. I found a party that sees me as an individual, not as a part of a group. I found a party that puts family first. I found a party that has love of liberty at its core. And I found a party that believes that peace begins with strength."

A fine conservative catechism, that. And note the deft combination of the colloquial and the elegant in her story of her grandfather Rice, the son of a farmer in rural Alabama:

"Around 1918 he decided he was going to get book learning. And so, he asked, in the language of the day, where a colored man could go to college. He was told about little Stillman College, a school about 50 miles away. So granddaddy saved up his cotton for tuition and went off to Tuscaloosa.

"After the first year he ran out of cotton and he needed a way to pay for college. Praise be, as he often does, God gave him an answer. My grandfather asked how those other boys were staying in school, and he was told that they had what was called a scholarship. And they said, "If you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, then you could have one, too.' Granddaddy Rice said, "That's just what I had in mind.'

"And my family has been Presbyterian and college-educated ever since."

Deftly written (that "Praise be" sentence is particularly masterful), dryly funny, devoid of claims to victim status _ Rice's address was a rarity, a political moment for grown-ups. Unfortunately, NBC and CBS carried none of the address, and ABC carried just five minutes of it.

However, the media generally had a merry time describing the convention as Republicans in multicultural drag _ the Rainbow Coalition of the Thirty-Nine-Point-Six-Percent Tax Bracket. But if George W. Bush is elected, and if Rice and Colin Powell become, as well they might, national security adviser and secretary of state, respectively, the three most eminent African-Americans in public life will be Republicans (the third being Justice Clarence Thomas).

Powell did four duties in Philadelphia. He addressed the delegates, without discernible reluctance, as "fellow Republicans," he praised Bush's record in Texas, he said Bush is ready to be commander in chief, and he warmly recalled his Gulf War collaboration with then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.

Powell gave a more impassioned plea for affirmative action than you are apt to hear in prime-time from the podium of the Democrats' convention, but his reasoning was weak: "Some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but you hardly hear a whimper when it's affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax code with preferences for special interests." The argument for affirmative action has reached bankruptcy when it is distilled to "well, it's good enough for lobbyists" _ as though there is no moral distinction between the normal, if sometimes tawdry, bartering of favors among factions that is a universal transaction cost of democracy, and the allocation of entitlements based on race.

But the news the media missed while mostly covering what interests them most _ themselves _ is that making both noble addresses and foolish arguments (Rice did the former; Powell did both) are equal opportunity occupations in the Republican Party. Recent polls show African-Americans becoming increasingly conservative. The composition of the party could follow, not cause, the composition of a Bush administration. And when, as will happen, Republican candidates can reasonably hope to receive a significant portion of the African-American vote, politics will be transformed.

+ George F. Will is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. +

Washington Post Writers Group

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