DETROIT — Borrowing some of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's words and trying a bit of his style, Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis on Monday accused the Reagan Administration of showing "icy indifference" to black concerns and said the nation faces a "fundamental choice" in this fall's election.
"We can remain frozen in the ice of our own indifference" or "transform the cycle of poverty into a ladder of opportunity," he told the National Urban League Convention here.
The more than 3,000 delegates to the civil rights group's annual meeting greeted Dukakis tepidly at first but warmed as he spoke, giving him a standing ovation when he noted that, although he was addressing them, Vice President George Bush had declined to do so.
'Who's Here and Who Isn't'
"I know this is a nonpartisan group and I respect that," Dukakis said, but "I hope you'll note who's here and who isn't here."
Dukakis also was warmly applauded when he pledged to join civil rights leaders later this month in a Washington march to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington.
And referring to a meeting he recently had with Urban League President John E. Jacob, at which Jacob had talked of the league's goal of keeping "pressure" for civil rights advancement on the next President, Dukakis said that "next year, the pressure will be coming from the President."
The speech was Dukakis' first address to a major black organization since winning the Democratic nomination nearly two weeks ago. Jackson plans to speak to the Urban League on Wednesday.
On another front, Dukakis again sought to downplay differences with his conservative running mate, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.
Asked at an airport press conference in Boston whether recent developments in Nicaragua had changed his position on aid to the U.S.-backed Contras, Dukakis repeated his opposition to what he called the Reagan Administration's "failed and illegal policy."
Bentsen Free to Disagree
But, he said, Bentsen, who supports that policy, is free to "vote his conscience" when the issue returns to the Senate floor this month.
Together, the speech and the press conference illustrated a fundamental problem for Dukakis: how to reassure conservative "Reagan Democrats" that he is not just another Democratic liberal without convincing others, particularly "Jackson Democrats," that the differences between him and expected Republican nominee Bush are too small to merit voting about.
Dukakis' answer has been to emphasize issues like the Reagan Administration's record on civil rights and its cuts in federal money for housing and education, which have been wildly unpopular in the black community. These, at the same time, are not central to the concerns of the working-class white Democrats who voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
Met With Black Leaders
Since the Democratic convention ended July 21, Dukakis has met frequently with black leaders. His staff has prepared a brochure detailing his record of minority appointments and support for civil rights measures in Massachusetts, and it will be mailed later this week to 6,700 black elected officials.
In Monday's speech to the Urban League, Dukakis pledged to support affirmative action and to enforce the federal Voting Rights and Fair Housing acts. He also vowed to "take our cue on civil rights not from people like William Bradford Reynolds," the Justice Department's controversial conservative civil rights division chief, "but from people like Eleanor Holmes Norton," the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Jimmy Carter Administration and a prominent Jackson adviser.
Dukakis also illustrated another technique: imitation, the sincerest form of flattery.
He picked up trademark Jackson terms like "common ground,"--"I like that phrase; it's what this campaign is all about," he said.
And he won some applause when he attempted, somewhat awkwardly, to imitate the oratorical flourishes of the black pulpit tradition Jackson epitomizes.
His Administration, Dukakis said, would "build an economic future" of "good jobs and good wages" for all.
"Some say it can't be done. I say, we haven't tried.
"Fifteen billion dollars wasted on 'Star Wars'; we haven't tried.
"Thirty-six billion dollars for two new supercarrier task forces . . . we haven't tried.
"Fewer black college students today than we had seven years ago; we haven't tried."