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The politics of race

Leading up to his trip to Africa, President Clinton has been offering lots of soothing talk about healing, dialogue and reconciliation on the issue of race. But a new book shows Clinton administration officials and the Democratic National Committee were behind the airing of a racially divisive, explosive and fraudulent political ad prior to California’s vote on Proposition 209, the successful 1996 initiative to end government-sponsored racial preferences.

The book, “The Color Bind,” is by Lydia Chavez of the UC Berkeley — no opponent, she, of racial preferences. For the first time, this insider, who tracked day-to-day activities in the campaigns by both sides of Prop. 209, reveals the DNC put its money behind an attack ad portraying Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as an initiative proponent and tying him to Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan.

“The Duke ad, cut in October by (Bob) Shrum, was anything but moderate,” Chavez writes. “It began and ended with burning crosses and Klan regalia. Colin Powell and President Clinton were edged in between … but the enduring image was the burning cross.”

In the spot, Duke walks onto a stage, waving and smiling.

“He’s not just another guy in a business suit,” explains the narrator. “He’s David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan. And he’s come to California to support Proposition 209.”

Duke is seen speaking, then there are visual cuts of images of work and classroom.

“Proposition 209 would close education and job opportunities to women and minorities, close magnet schools, lock women out of government jobs, end equal opportunity.”

There are visual shots of Gingrich, Buchanan and Duke.

“Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and David Duke want you to vote Yes on 209.”

Cut to photo of Powell and Bill Clinton at White House.

“President Clinton and Colin Powell say you should vote No.

Cut back to Duke speaking, then finish with the burning cross.

“Don’t be fooled,” the announcer says. “David Duke didn’t come to California to end discrimination. Vote No on 209.”

Chavez reports accurately that this commercial left nothing to the viewer’s imagination: “Let there be any mistake, film clips of Duke, Gingrich and Buchanan receive special lighting effects to emphasize their ‘whiteness.’ The primary targets for this commercial were minorities and white liberals who believe themselves to be racially tolerant. Liberals, however, are least receptive to negative advertising, which may explain the almost universal condemnation this ad received.”

If ever there was a political commercial that “played the race card,” this was it. But worse yet, the ad was completely misleading. It wasn’t the campaign in favor of Proposition 209 that brought David Duke, it was the campaign against it. Those who opposed the ending of race preferences understood that tying Duke to the initiative was their best hope for an upset defeat. They invited him to speak on a college campus. They paid for his trip. It was a set-up from the word go.

“Ironically,” writes Chavez, “the Duke ad found its greatest support at the Democratic National Committee. The commercial accomplished precisely what the Democrats had envisioned in early 1995, when (White House aide) Ickes wrote his constituency outreach proposals. The report on African Americans noted that “Democrats only win statewide elections in California when they maximize black voter turnout.”

It was the DNC, not the campaign opposing 209, that came up with the money to keep the ad on the air in the final weeks of the campaign.

In fact it was a Clinton fund-raiser in California in which George Stephanopolous appeared, writes Chavez, where major donors were encouraged to give money to the campaign against 209. The Clinton camp really didn’t care whether the ads helped or hurt the initiative. But it knew that racial polarization would help turn out black voters who would help the president’s re-election effort in the state representing the biggest electoral vote prize.

Remember that the next time you hear the president talk about racial healing, civilized dialogue, mutual respect, understanding, blah, blah, blah.