- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Al Gore and Bill Bradley won cheers and a few jeers at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in Monday night's debate, promising what one critic called "a lot of pie in the sky," but raised fears that they moved so far left as to hurt Democratic prospects in November.

The vice president and the former New Jersey senator talked of reparations for descendants of slaves, promised "info stamps" that the poor could use to buy computers and harshly scolded white Americans for not holding similar views on how to unify the races.

Politicians and even comedians, ranging across the spectrum, leaped on the debate as a source of outraged bemusement.

Radio talk-show host Don Imus called it a "pander fest." So did a spokesman for Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, the only black Republican in Congress.

"Unbelievable," said Bill Maher, host of TV's "Politically Incorrect." "Two white guys on the stage of the Apollo and pandering for the black vote."

The eagerness of the vice president and Mr. Bradley to ingratiate themselves with the mostly black audience was contrasted to Bill Clinton's calculated repudiation of Sister Souljah during his first presidential campaign in 1992. By denouncing the rap singer's suggestion that blacks should "have a week and kill white people," Mr. Clinton irritated the Rev. Jesse Jackson but won over white voters.

Mr. Gore on Monday called reparations for blacks government payments to descendants of victims of racial discrimination "a definite possibility" in Tulsa, Okla., where a 1921 race riot killed and injured a number of blacks. He said, however, that a "cash payment" to blacks nationwide who have experienced prejudice is not the "best approach" because it might not "get through the United States Congress."

The vice president rejected the notion that there has been significant progress toward racial equality in workplaces and universities.

"I don't think that it's time for anybody to say, 'Look, we have made so much progress,' " Mr. Gore said. "I think that's a ridiculous conclusion. It justifies making available opportunities for advancement and affirmative action in every sphere."

Mr. Bradley, whose stubborn challenge to Mr. Gore's candidacy has served to pull the vice president to the left on a variety of issues, went even farther.

"White Americans are in denial of black Americans' contributions through slavery, denial in Jim Crow, and continue to deny today the indignities that African-Americans suffer," said Mr. Bradley, who complained of what he called "white skin preference."

The onetime professional basketball player called for the government to issue "info stamps" to poor people to buy computers and software in the way food stamps are used to to purchase groceries. He said the "info stamps" would help minorities become "part of the digital revolution."

Mr. Gore, who once said he had invented the Internet, interjected: "Well, I made a speech last week on how to close the digital divide."

Pundits leaped to criticize the performances, too. "There's little doubt which song Al Gore and Bill Bradley were singing up there on the stage," writes Jesse Drucker in the on-line magazine Salon. "Billy Paul's signature tune, 'Am I Black Enough For You?'

"This event was perversely entertaining in that the issue being debated seemed to be which of these white Ivy League grads with kids in elite Ivy League schools can show that he feels the pain of black America the most."

One press critic chided the mainstream press for ignoring the leftward Democratic lurch after exhaustive coverage of the controversy over South Carolina's flying the Confederate flag over its capitol, centering on the refusal of George W. Bush and John McCain to join the debate over the flag.

"I was surprised," said Steven Brill, founder of Brill's Content, a media watchdog magazine. "The press spent the entirety of the coverage in South Carolina saying: 'These guys are getting in trouble, tripping over themselves to appeal to conservatives. Bush is going way out on a limb how's he ever going to get back to the center?' "

The pandering by Democrats on Monday, said Mr. Brill, was "much more blatant than that, but not reported at all."

"For much of the popular press, Democrats are given much more leeway for pandering to the left than Republicans are for pandering to the right," said Republican strategist Rich Galen, former spokesman for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Vice President Dan Quayle. "So what happened [Monday] night will largely be overlooked."

To make sure that doesn't happen, Republicans say they will remind voters of the Apollo debate in the general-election campaign. Mike Collins, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, was incensed that Mr. Gore voiced no objection to being questioned in the debate by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the author of the Tawana Brawley hoax. "He's the David Duke of the Democratic Party," Mr. Collins said.

Mr. Brill said that at some point during the debate, Mr. Gore should have launched into "the Sister Souljah number that Bill Clinton did."

"Thinking ahead as Gore obviously should be to the general election, he should have one answer there where they boo him."

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