Richard Reeves

Campaign 2000: Bob Jones vs. Al Sharpton

WASHINGTON -- This was supposed to be a boring campaign, wasn't it? Wooden Al Gore vs. feathery George W. Bush, each of them more interested in avenging the defeats of their fathers than changing the worlds of their children.

Then along came the big challenger, Bill Bradley, Democrat, who was even more boring than the other two once he switched to long pants.

Enter John McCain, Republican. Not boring. But also not given much of a chance inside the musty confines of the club called the Republican Party. Even now, having replaced Bradley as principal challenger to the established order and having brought Bush to his knees, McCain probably will be blocked by his own party. Club GOP hates McCain more than they hate Bill Clinton; not since Nelson Rockefeller tried to buy the place more than 30 years ago have they hated this way.

But whatever happens next in either party, the boredom is over. McCain and Bradley have scrambled the eggs and the heads of both parties. To try to survive the challenges of Bradley and McCain, both Gore and Bush have been forced out of their game plans, saying and doing things that will return to haunt them as the leaves begin to turn this fall. From August to November, this is going to be an interesting, dirty and perhaps defining campaign.

The big names of campaign 2000 will almost certainly be Bob Jones and Al Sharpton. As McCain, with the whole world watching, was clobbering Bush by tying him to the time-warp religious racism of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, Gore and Bradley were getting less attention courting the religious racism of the Rev. Mr. Sharpton during a debate on Monday night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

We will pay attention soon enough. At this very moment, in small rooms somewhere in this city, men and women are playing with little digital video-editing machines, cutting images and words from the university and the theater appearances.

On the right, conservatives are already attacking the Gore-Bradley debate as, in the words of The Washington Times, "The Harlem Pander-Fest." Democrats talking about what a great guy Sharpton is -- a man who came to public attention by falsely crying "rape" against cops and district attorneys -- means that we are headed for another round of Wille Horton-style commercials. The Republicans are simply going to pound the Democrats with "issues" like apologies for black slavery and talk of reparations for the descendants of slaves.

Will it work? Of course it will. It may not win the election -- I think Gore is going to be our next president -- but it will tear the country apart. And that tearing is exactly what the Republicans need to survive as a relatively unified party of the right in a time when a president, Bill Clinton, has done a magnificient job of blurring partisan and ideological differences.

The Democrats will turn about by tying Bush, if he is the nominee, to everything they, and many other Americans, find objectionable about the fundamentalist Christian right -- beginning with the bigotry of Bob Jones and its policies of segregated social life.

Will that work? I think so. A lot of people were appalled, and a little frightened, by what they saw during the Clinton impeachment. Some otherwise distinguished Republicans talked as if the United States were a theocracy, Ayatollahland West. At least that is how it will look in the commercials this October.

Perhaps all this was predestined. When there are no overriding issues -- no war, much prosperity -- politicians have to reach deeper in the nation's emotional pool. This time, I fear, they will be reaching deep into the muck at the bottom.

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