WASHINGTON — An angry Gen. Colin L. Powell cautioned Al Gore on Thursday against "playing the polarizing 'race card' " in the presidential campaign after the vice president's campaign manager said in a recent interview that the Republican Party would rather "take pictures with black children than feed them."
Donna Brazile, the first African American woman to run a major presidential campaign, also questioned the sincerity of the Republican Party's attention to Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, two of the GOP's best-known black leaders.
"The Republicans bring out Colin Powell and J.C. Watts because they have no program, no policy," she said. "They play that game because they have no other game. They have no love and no joy. They'd rather take pictures with black children than feed them."
Watts, chairman of the House Republican Conference, also complained to Gore, saying the comments by Brazile were "offensive" and "racist."
Brazile and Gore made no public comments on the matter Thursday. Aides to the vice president's campaign defended the remarks as accurately describing the Republican Party's treatment of issues important to the African American community.
"There's no question Gen. Powell is a great man who we all admire," said Chris Lehane, spokesman for Gore's presidential campaign. "However, having Gen. Powell and Congressman Watts in the Republican Party, no matter how distinguished they are, does not substitute for an agenda that supports African Americans, including civil rights, health care, education [and] affirmative action, and that was the point of Donna's comment."
Powell, who served as the military chairman for both presidents Bush and Clinton, said in his letter to the vice president Thursday that he is "disappointed and offended" by Brazile's remarks.
"We can debate and disagree over specific programs and approaches, but let's not start this new century by playing the polarizing 'race card,' which immediately contaminates and destroys the opportunity for open debate on issues of importance to all our children," wrote the general, who directed the allied military operation during the Persian Gulf War.
Powell noted that Clinton and President Bush had asked him to chair national organizations encouraging volunteers to serve as mentors to disadvantaged children. He also served on the board of governors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, as a trustee of the United Negro College Fund and Howard University, and as a member of the advisory committee of the Children's Health Fund.
"I do so to help feed, educate and spiritually nourish all of America's children, black and white, and not just for a photo op. And I do so as a Republican," he said.
Brazile's remarks drew little initial attention when they were distributed on the Bloomberg.com Web site a week ago.
Powell waited before writing to Gore to see if the vice president volunteered an apology.
"This is so out of bounds, so reprehensible, so shameful," said a friend of Powell. "He waited 24 hours and heard nothing from the vice president, or anybody, senior or junior, with the vice president. That has been even more disturbing. The vice president needs to severely rebuke his political managers."
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said Gore had no plans to talk to Powell.
Lehane said he did not know whether Gore had raised the issue with Brazile.