RICHMOND, Va. — As a young black man waiting tables for white movers and shakers in segregated Richmond, L. Douglas Wilder recalls getting his first exposure to politics.
"I would hear things that were going on," he said the other day, "and I was almost Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man.' People would say things as if we weren't even there."
He is invisible no more.
He has been a Virginia state senator and lieutenant governor. Last year he became the state's, and the nation's, first black elected governor. And now Lawrence Douglas Wilder, 59, is increasingly mentioned as presidential or vice presidential material.
He is not discouraging speculation about his aspirations. He has made repeated forays into states that hold early presidential contests. His aides recently formed a political action committee to spread his message of "fiscal responsibility" around the nation.
Wilder knows the dangers of national ambitions. In an interview in his Richmond office, he ticked off the names of black politicians who once enjoyed great prominence, then plummeted to disdain or obscurity: Adam Clayton Powell . . . Edward Brooke . . . W. Wilson Goode. In other cases, he noted, black people have held offices such as Chicago mayor and lieutenant governor of California and Colorado, only to be replaced by whites.
"I don't want us to be a blip on the seismograph," Wilder said.
His recent statements reflect that ambition.
Wilder recently told a Virginia symposium on the savings and loan crisis that "in the 1990s, it will be up to America's leaders to bridge the rapidly growing gap between 'Washington in Wonderland' and the very real landscape upon which the rest of America must struggle daily to earn a living and to raise their families. If they cannot . . . then they should not be surprised when the American people ask . . . them to step aside for new architects."
During the interview, Wilder accused President Bush of "intellectual dishonesty" for dispatching troops to the Persian Gulf to reinstate rulers in "a despotic nation" but not protecting the civil rights of people back home.
By vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1990, he said, Bush "has abdicated moral leadership."
"I know what quotas are; I have experienced them firsthand," Wilder said in a recent letter to Bush.
Is Wilder simply outraged, or is he running for something?
He said he is not running for President in 1992. Asked if he would rule out accepting the No. 2 spot on the ticket, Wilder smiled broadly and said: "I wouldn't rule it out, but I'm not running for it, and I don't anticipate it."
Hardly anyone who watches politics believes him.
"He's running for President," political analyst William Schneider said. "He doesn't hide it."
"I think he is certainly running for something," said Merle Black, Emory University political scientist. "He is clearly advertising his availability, either as a presidential candidate or as a vice presidential candidate."
Wilder makes such good fodder for speculation for several reasons. His tough fiscal stance--proposing to cut at least $1.4 billion from the state's $26-billion biennial budget and promising no new taxes--produces the kind of hardheaded image Democrats think they need to win the White House.
His credentials as a fiscal conservative are so strong that Richard Viguerie, the king of direct-mail fund raising for the Republican right wing, said conservatives might well consider supporting him.
At the same time, with Harvey Gantt defeated in the North Carolina Senate race and Andrew Young losing in the Georgia governor's race, Wilder has moved to center stage among black politicians.
"He's a rising star in the Democratic Party," said James Ruvolo, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "He is socially liberal and fiscally conservative," Schneider said. "In my mind, that is a perfect formula for the suburbs. And that's where the votes are."
But before he runs for anything else, Wilder must survive Virginia. Many Virginians fear that Wilder's proposed budget cuts will result in inadequate social services and that programs ranging from road-building to education will suffer.
"People in Virginia have marveled at how much national praise he has been given while his approval ratings in the state are rather modest," said Robert Holsworth, political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University.
He could also face some criticism from liberal elements of the party nationwide.
Robert Smith, political scientist at San Francisco State University, said it would be "a hollow victory" if black politicians had to sacrifice their "substantive policy agendas" for representation in high places. "The new black politician would then be a a shell of himself, more like a Prince or Michael Jackson than a B. B. King or a Bobby Bland," Smith wrote in a paper last February.