Sweet nothings?

John Kerry and George Bush came a-courtin’ last week. The only things missing were bouquets of roses and boxes of bonbons as the presidential challenger and the incumbent hit Detroit in an attempt to woo the African-American vote with speeches to the annual conference of the National Urban League.

As a Democrat, Kerry was akin to the longtime beau who seeks to reassure his gal that she is not being taken for granted. With the election promising to be tighter than Spandex, he knows that a large turnout of black voters could mean the difference between victory and defeat, especially in a state like Michigan, which is both up for grabs and crucial. And that means he needs to inspire some fiery passion by November.

No one would say he accomplished that in Thursday’s speech. For one thing, the politically savvy audience has seen how promises of devotion made on the campaign trail can fade the morning after an election. As a marker of sincerity, some members of this overwhelmingly African-American crowd said they will be watching this week’s Democratic Convention to see if Kerry and company place the same sort of emphasis on programs like Head Start and urban renewal when speaking to a broader, much whiter audience.

It is fair to say, though, that Kerry, if not yet evoking heated passion, at least laid some important groundwork that can be built upon in the coming months.

“This is the first time I’ve seen Kerry address an audience face to face,” said Jeanette Moss, who heads an Urban League chapter in Charlotte, N.C. Moss, a Massachusetts native, said she came to this gathering with an open mind regarding her choice for president. She came away impressed with Kerry’s willingness to provide details about ways he would address issues important to her: health care, education and the economy.

“On a scale of 1 to 10,” she said, “I’d give him an 8.”

Still, she said, her mind is still not made up.

President Bush, in contrast to Kerry, was more like the oft-spurned suitor who resorts to some tried-and-true tactics to overcome a rival who has the inside track. For one thing, he came bearing a lavish gift in an attempt to prove his sincerity. Following Bush’s speech, U.S Secretary of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao announced that the Urban League was the recipient of a $9.2 million grant to help fund youth education and job-training programs.

In addition, the president resorted to another one of the oldest tricks in the romance book: He dissed the other guy.

In politics, if not love, you sometimes can win if the other guy loses.

In asking this audience for support, Bush admitted outright that the “Repbulican Party has a lot of work to do” when it comes to attracting African-Americans — a group that consistently sends 90 percent of its votes to Democrats. And he drew laughs when he pointed out that the Rev. Jesse Jackson, sitting near the front of the audience, didn’t need to nod his head quite so vigorously in agreement.

But, in all likelihood, the president has to be thinking that he still succeeds if he does nothing more than quell black support for his rival. To that end, a sweet-talking Bush threw fertilizer on the seeds of doubt, gaining several rounds of applause when he asked, “Does the Democrat Party take African-American voters for granted? It’s a fair question. I know plenty of politicians assume they have your vote. But do they earn it and do they deserve it? Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party?”

Bush drew more laughs when he quoted Charlie Gaines (a former Republican state representative from Illinois), saying, “Blacks are gagging on the donkey but not yet ready to swallow the elephant.”

There is no doubt that that sentiment is prevalent in the African-American community. It was expressed eloquently and received enthusiastically here in Detroit earlier this year by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was the only Democratic presidential candidate to show up for a debate sponsored by the local branch of the NAACP — a group that Bush refused to speak to during its national conference in Philadelphia just two weeks ago. And it can’t help Bush’s case much that, with memories of Florida in 2000 and the widespread sentiment that blacks were kept from voting through various means, that Republican state legislator John Pappageorge of Troy — who is also a member of the Bush-Cheney ’04 Michigan Veterans Leadership Team — was recently quoted as saying that his party would face a tough time in November if it failed to “suppress the Detroit vote.”

But that was the only time Bush seemed to really connect. For much of his speech, the audience offered only polite applause, and many sat with arms folded, shaking their heads at rhetoric of inclusion from a president who has actively opposed affirmative action.

“There is a gap between what he said and what he has accomplished,” is the way Peter Ogbuji, an Urban League official from Ohio, politely put it.

Along with their wooing, neither Kerry nor Bush were above a little outright pandering. Kerry made it a point to introduce a few of the African-Americans on his election team and sprinkled his Thursday speech before an audience at Cobo Hall with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes. It is a good bet those names aren’t heard all that often in a typical Kerry stump speech.

Bush, addressing a significantly smaller crowd at a ballroom in the RenCen, trotted out the names of prominent African-Americans in his administration, such as Education Secretary Rod Paige, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

“It’s pretty slick how he played it,” Tara Jones, deputy director of neighborhood services for Washington, D.C., said of Bush’s attempts at seduction. She called it a not-so-subtle attempt at “reverse psychology.”

Her friend, Laurie Row, 31, agreed, but also said that Bush’s point about Dems taking black voters for granted is a legitimate one and needs to be discussed.

Both women said that the Democratic leadership would be wise to take the president’s tack seriously.

The black vote, observed Row, is not as “homogenous” as it once was. “I think we’re more open-minded now,” she said.

Jones nodded in agreement, adding, “We need to hold the Democrats more accountable.”

While admitting that Bush succeeded in “upping the ante” and that both parties need to compete for the African-American vote, Sharpton was disdainful of the president, saying that blacks would not be deceived by someone who presented a distorted record and then attempted to win them over by tossing out a few jokes.

But Sharpton appeared ready to mute his criticism of a Democratic Party that, only a few months ago, he claimed was failing to address the needs of urban America. Asked what blacks who feel marginalized should do, he replied: “Vote for John Kerry.”

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who has vowed to raise money and turn out the vote for Kerry, also said the president made a legitimate point when he raised the issue of Dems taking blacks for granted.

“That was absolutely the best statement today,” said Kilpatrick. “There needs to be a real cognitive discussion of that.”

As one conference attendee pointed out, Kerry may get 90 percent of the African-American vote, but that won’t do him much good if only 20 percent of the black vote turns out.

By far the largest outpouring of affection last week was not for Kerry or Bush, but for former Urban League leader Vernon Jordan, who offered a glowing endorsement when introducing Kerry. Likewise, other black leaders such as Jackson and Sharpton were constantly being collared by admirers who wanted their photos taken with the two men as they walked through the crowd.

Luther Seabrook, 54, the head of an Urban League chapter in South Carolina, offered some advice for Kerry.

Seabrook thinks Kerry would be wise to pull some money from TV ads and put Jordan, Jackson and other black leaders like them out on the hustings, allowing them to make the kind of connection needed to fire up the black vote.

“Kerry himself can’t do it,” Seabrook said. “Those guys can.”

Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. You can reach him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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