BOSTON — California Gov. George Deukmejian again rebuked the Reagan Administration for opposing efforts to create a special day to honor victims of the Armenian genocide, but declared Saturday that he would not withhold support from Vice President George Bush or any other Republican presidential candidate because of his position on the issue.
"I cannot understand why our federal government won't stand up and designate a National Day of Remembrance in honor of our families and ancestors," the Republican governor told a sellout dinner of nearly 1,000 Armenian Americans, who greeted his comment with loud applause.
Deukmejian, who rarely breaks with President Reagan on political issues, went on to say: "It's time to do what is right. It's time to speak the truth clearly and courageously. It is time to stand up and be counted on the side of freedom and human rights."
Sharing a Platform
The governor in the past has criticized the Reagan Administration for opposing a congressional resolution commemorating victims of the Armenian genocide in 1915, but never on the same platform with both Reagan and Bush.
That came about Saturday because both top Republicans agreed to participate in the dinner honoring Deukmejian.
The dinner, an extraordinary event, included a speech by Bush, a video message sent by Reagan from the White House, speeches by Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and a video from Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
Noting that Dole and Bush are running for the Republican presidential nomination and that Dukakis is campaigning on the Democratic side, Kennedy, a presidential candidate in 1980, cracked, "It seems like everyone here is running for President but me."
Boston is a place famous for ethnic politics and the Deukmejian event was in that tradition. The audience that heard Deukmejian's impassioned demand that the Reagan Administration support the National Day of Remembrance also heard Kennedy talk about "Irish and Armenian" politicians standing "for all the causes we share." Other speeches were laden with references to the virtues of hard work, educating the young, and never giving up.
The dinner for Deukmejian was sponsored by the Armenian Assembly of America to celebrate the growing clout not only of Deukmejian but the Armenian community as well.
Only 200 Armenian Americans registered for the group's annual convention, but more than 800 people signed up early for the $125-a-plate dinner. By the time the dinner began, the crowd was closer to 1,000 and dozens who could not find seats stood along the walls of the room.
Jirair Haratunian, the dinner chairman and president of a Washington media and communications firm, said Deukmejian was "a kinsman . . . a hairenagits . . . a fellow Armenian who most eloquently personifies the blossoming of the Armenian community of the United States."
The question of supporting Bush came about because many politically active Armenian Americans want to use support of the Day of Remembrance resolution as a litmus test for Republican candidates.
Armenians say that 1.5 million of them were killed by Ottoman Turks in 1915. The government of Turkey has never acknowledged the slaughter, and the Reagan Administration, fearing repercussions from a valued military ally, has sided with the Turkish government. A genocide resolution was defeated in the House of Representatives in August.
No Firm Commitment
Many of the dinner guests hoped that Bush would forcefully distance himself from the President, but that did not happen. Bush, while saying he personally acknowledged the slaughter, did not mention the resolution directly.
Dole, Bush's rival, reminded the dinner crowd that he long had supported the genocide resolution. Dole called the genocide "a terrible wound" that "cannot be denied nor can its existence be covered up." Reagan praised Deukmejian's performance as governor but did not mention the resolution in his brief video message.
Earlier in the day, Deukmejian said their stances on the Day of Remembrance would not keep him from supporting Bush or any other candidate. "I'm not going to demand anything from any candidate," Deukmejian said.
Deukmejian told reporters before the dinner he hopes that "eventually the conscience of this country and the Administration, in terms of standing up for human rights," will lead to passage of the resolution establishing a Day of Remembrance for victims of the genocide. Armenians honor their dead on April 24 each year.
Both Dole and Bush clearly would like Deukmejian's support.
Dole said he attended the dinner to honor Deukmejian, a fellow Republican, and to get some support of his own from the Armenian community.
"I wouldn't mind if Deukmejian got up tonight . . . and in his statement say I've come all the way to Boston to support Bob Dole," the Senate minority leader said before the dinner.
Deukmejian frequently has said he will not take sides in the Republican presidential primary.