Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, May 19, 1992
Speaking truth to power, once the province of courageous Old Testament prophets, is becoming the custom of the country. Just about everyone George Bush meets these days tells him off.
Bush asked for this by his clumsy partisan response to the upheaval that followed the Rodney G. King verdict. He blamed it all on Lyndon B. Johnson. Any fool knows that a man who kicks a casket at such a moment in the life of the nation has not a clue about what to do.
Wherever the president has gone, to a Los Angeles church, a Philadelphia ghetto, the Notre Dame commencement, he has been ambushed by someone who tells him he is talking through his hat. For one who a year ago was basking in approval, it is a most uncongenial turn of events.
He could perhaps expect black preachers in a shabby little church in the burned out area to instruct him in his duties as a Christian and a leader. And by going into new territory for him, a drug-infested Philadelphia neighborhood, he practically invited a bracing query from a community worker, who had no time for the choreography of a presidential visit and asked pointedly, “Exactly how are we supposed to fight this kind of problem . . . with limited funds?”
And although campuses have gone steadily right in the last 12 years, it was his luck that Notre Dame chose Sarah McGrath as its valedictorian and that she thinks he’s got it all wrong. Although she mercifully did not mention his name, she gave him hell for “self-congratulatory and divisive rhetoric about the Cold War” and suggested that the King verdict and succeeding events “demand that each of us recognize how we contribute to the violence of oppression.” And she said, for good measure, “Community requires that all of us acknowledge our culpability in the oppression of others.”
The president, who had perhaps expected a little effusion about the honor of his having graced the occasion, looked unhappy.
He doesn’t even have to leave the house to hear what he is doing wrong. At last Tuesday’s leadership meeting, for instance, he heard more unvarnished truth than has been spoken under his roof since he took office.
A measure of frank talk was guaranteed by the presence of Rep. Maxine Waters (DCalif.), the black congresswoman from Watts, whose district office was burned to the ground in what she prefers to call “the rebellion.” Waters has an attitude, no question about it, and Bush pales at the mention of her name. From the moment the flames were lit, she has been shouting about the failures and neglect of Republican administrations.
“All I can do,” she said in a typically stormy utterance at the height of the mayhem, “All I can do is knock the door down. I was kicking in the behind of the president of the United States. . . . ”
Understandably, the president left her name off the list of community leaders who met him at the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church May 7. Nor did he invite her to the first post-riot White House leadership meeting last Tuesday. It did him no good. Waters, using the good offices of House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), muscled her way into the meeting – and took it over.
She told him what she thought of his much-vaunted plans for urban enterprise zones and tenant ownership in housing projects – “I tried to tell him what I know he doesn`t know,” is the way she put it.
“Listen, guys,” she began in her smoky contralto, and launched into a description of life in the ghetto: “17- to 30-year-olds, with two or three kids who never worked a day in their lives; dropped-out 27-year-olds still in gangs.
“You have got to talk about real job training, apprentice-training, especially in construction industries, you’ve got to teach life-management skills – how to negotiate, don’t punch out your supervisor, teach people how to go. They don’t know this stuff. These are people who don’t have a house, who go from mother to grandmother to girlfriend.”
Bush, who didn’t say anything, asked Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp what he thought. Kemp kicked the question over to Deputy Labor Secretary Delbert L. Spurlock, Jr.
“Mr. President,” said Spurlock gravely, “this country is falling apart.” There was dead silence in the room, according to three who were there. Spurlock went on to explain what might be done. As a former Pentagon manpower director, he endorsed Waters’s views, pointed out that defense has the funds and the expertise to do the training.
It is not for want of being told of what steps can be taken that Bush will fail in the greatest test of his presidency. Meanwhile, he can join in the grumble of the ghetto male: “Can’t get no respect.”
Del Spurlock, a Washington attorney, was assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs from 1983 to 1989.
Phi Beta Iota: The Honorable Delbert Spurlock was also General Counsel of the Army and Deputy Secretary of Labor under President Ronald Reagan.