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National Perspective: POLITICS

Gingrich-Jackson Courtship: Was it Outreach or Outrageous?

Unusual alliance is seen as a case of mutual expediency. Black Republicans in particular are rankled.

March 04, 1997|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It was an odd political alliance, the one between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. And if it outraged conservative activists like William J. Bennett, imagine how it played with African American Republicans.

"It was a slap in the face to black Republicans and Republican activists in general," says Faye Anderson, executive director of the Council of 100, a Washington-based network of African American Republicans. The besieged Gingrich, she adds, should focus his outreach efforts on members of "his own party."

What rankles Anderson and other black conservatives is that the Gingrich-Jackson alliance appears to represent yet another lost opportunity to elevate someone from within their own ranks. Instead, the brief--and perhaps impractical--courtship strikes many black GOP members as one more example of their political invisibility, and a rebuke from the party's leadership of their legitimacy within black America.

The relationship attracted notice when Gingrich showed up on Jackson's weekly television show. More heads turned when Gingrich invited Jackson to be his guest at last month's State of the Union address. It reached fever pitch after Gingrich appeared to be taking Jackson's side when the speaker was criticized by the only black Republican in Congress.

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The entire episode touched a raw political nerve. Black Republicans long have felt ostracized and underappreciated within their own party. Gingrich's attempt to reach out to black America by extending his hand to a traditional liberal like Jackson was seen as a godsend to a political enemy, the kind of gesture that even faithful black Republicans had never been offered.

The Gingrich-Jackson duet was all the more difficult for black Republicans because few believed it was being sung in honest harmony. Indeed, an examination of the symbolism embedded in the improbable pairing suggests that their joint promotion of racial healing may be secondary to the personal and partisan motives of both men, observers say.

According to this view, expressed by analysts and activists from both parties, Gingrich and Jackson have been engaging each other in an unusual political dance designed to make each of them more appealing to a skeptical public. And, many say, the public won't necessarily regard the alliance as genuine, making the politics all the more problematic.

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"Will this partnership between Jesse and Newt work?" asks Ron Walters, director and senior scholar at the African American Leadership Project at the University of Maryland. "Well, no. Nobody believes it's sincere.

"There's something in it for both Jesse and Newt. Most people saw it that way--and that's why it backfired," says Walters, who served as a political advisor to Jackson during his two presidential campaigns.

Precisely how the rapprochement crystallized isn't clear. It doesn't seemed to have been plotted by the two leaders acting in concert. Rather, Gingrich and Jackson each apparently saw an opportunity and moved to exploit it, say those close to both men.

Timing was crucial. In the wake of his recent reprimand for misleading the House Ethics Committee about his use of tax-exempt funds for political purposes, Gingrich was at a nadir in his congressional career. Although Gingrich managed to hang on to the speakership, the ethics flap took a toll on his already shaky popularity with the public. A recent Times Poll, for example, revealed a 58% disapproval rating for the speaker; 60% of those polled said he should resign his leadership post.

By making a public display of compassion for the poor and disadvantaged minorities, Gingrich was seeking to soften his image and bolster his battered profile.

"It's important for Newt that he has begun to get favorable comments from that segment of the population that previously was disposed to say dreadful things about him," says Rich Galen, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee and a close friend of the speaker.

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It was at this point that Jackson began demonstrating public support for the speaker. Jackson, a former shadow senator representing the District of Columbia, exercised his right to be on the House floor during Gingrich's acceptance speech after winning a second term as speaker. During the speech, Jackson jumped to his feet repeatedly to lead standing ovations when Gingrich spoke of the need to solve the nation's racial problems and when the speaker praised Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) for working to find solutions to problems in the nation's capital.

"I do know [Gingrich] was very much moved by Rev. Jackson's reaction to his remarks after he was sworn in," Galen says.

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