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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Unity journalists preview Bush, Kerry debates

Duluth News Tribune, Aug. 8, 2004

WASHINGTON - Wonder how George W. Bush and John Kerry will fare against each other in their upcoming debates?

Back-to-back appearances by the Republican president and his Democratic challenger at this week's Unity Journalists of Color convention -- the largest gathering of news professionals ever -- offered the best glimpse of that impending battle with the first-round win going to -- well, we'll let you tally the score.

Kerry went first, speaking Thursday before a capacity hall packed with 5,000 of the 8,000 attendees at the black, Hispanic, Asian-American and American Indian journalist convention after an introduction by Ernie Sotomayor, the group's president, who is about 5-foot-8.

"I knew Unity was growing, but I was stunned to watch President Sotomayor grow right before our eyes," Kerry quipped after watching Sotomayor rise to his tippy-toes rather than readjust the microphone preset for the 6-foot-4 senator. For a rare display of impromptu ad-libbing, score a point for Kerry.

The candidate borrowed and, after a week's polish, refined portions of his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech to talk tough on terrorism and blast Bush on the war in Iraq. He went on to deliver remarks targeted to the audience, including a vow to use his presidency as a bully pulpit to demand the news media improve its dismal history of minority hiring and, in a bit of news, promised to appoint American Indians to high White House positions. More points to Kerry.

But in a Q&A session that followed, he reverted to trademark Kerry geek speak, responding to a query on Bush's education policy failures in the Leave No Child Behind Act with a verbose tale of neglect at Boston's inner city Jeremiah Burke High School. While it may have been accurate, it struck me as misplaced because I recalled the school's troubles culminated in the revocation of its accreditation during the Clinton, not Bush, administration, and buckets of bucks have flowed into its classrooms ever since. A former Boston colleague set me straight, however, explaining Kerry was trying to say he voted to pay for youth programs in response to the school's woes -- a reasonable position but one lost on at least some of us familiar with what he was talking about and more baffling to anyone who has never heard of Jeremiah Burke. No great communicator points here.

If Kerry could at least earn laurels for speaking the speech, Bush's performance the following day made the senator look positively Shakespearean. The president's flat recitation of Republican priorities such as tax cuts and school vouchers had difficulty rising above the platitudinal ("You can't read a newspaper if you can't read," he informed us) and even the lone heckler -- upset, reportedly, that Bush wasn't far enough to the right on God - had trouble getting immediately moved, or removed.

Unlike Kerry, however, the president came absolutely alive in his question and answer session and truly engaged his audience, though not for the reasons he would have wanted. To a question about federal sovereignty policies regarding Indian tribes, he said: "I think tribal sovereignty means just that: sovereignty, if you've been given sovereignty and you're viewed as a sovereign entity." Yogi Berra couldn't have said it better.

If that brought titters, his take on affirmative action brought the house down, when Bush, carefully stating he was against racial quotas, allowed himself to be rope-a-doped by syndicated columnist Roland Martin on college enrollment preferences given to the offspring of alumni.

"So colleges ought to be getting rid of legacies?" Martin asked.

"I think so," said Bush, who at Yale, if not in the presidency itself, benefited from legacies.

While Bush might want to forget the session, several thousand journalists found it very memorable, and his malapropisms promise to be the stuff of industry chatter for months to come. But before you add up the scorecard or factor in the alleged liberal media bias, note that his appearance will be remembered; and back in battleground states such as ours, what he said may matter less than how he said it. Like Drew Carey's "Who's Line is it Anyway?" stand-up show where comedians compete for points that don't count, it's the routine that may make the biggest impression on the somehow-still-undecided voter, and Bush would clearly be the favorite to slap jokes with in a bar.

Of course, there's still a very dangerous world outside and a deadly unresolved problem in Iraq. But don't worry - it's a sovereign nation now, and one that's been given sovereignty.

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