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Bush Wins Points for Speech on L.A. Riots


IN the immediate term, President Bush has earned high marks for leadership during the Los Angeles riots.

His Friday night address to the nation was one of the most effective of his presidency, say political analysts.

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"His message was nicely crafted, his delivery a little less wooden than usual," says Bruce Miroff, an associate professor and specialist on presidential image and power at the State University of New York at Albany.

The speech began with assertive talk about restoring law and order in L.A. and an enumeration of the National Guardsmen and federal law enforcement officials dispatched to L.A. or at least standing by. Bush also said he was "stunned" by the jury's acquittal of four white policemen in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King.

The personal response, including a pointed mention of wife Barbara and "my kids," seemed an effort to make up for Bush's initial reaction to last Wednesday's verdict, which urged respect for the American legal system and did not address whether he thought the jury was correct.

But Bush, as president, treaded a fine line between wanting to maintain public faith in the legal system and wanting to reflect the sentiment of the vast majority of Americans. According to one opinion poll, 89 percent of the public disagrees with the jury's acquittals.

"Symbolically, Bush led the country well," says Prof. Samuel Kernell, an expert on the press and the presidency at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). He cites the president's 90-minute consultation Friday morning with civil-rights leaders and the speech's reference to his family as two examples.

At a time of national crisis, it is the president's job to act "presidential." "People do look to him for comfort, guidance, reassurance, security," says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University.

His speech seemed aimed mostly at middle-class whites as an attempt to reassure a nation where violence had spread to cities across the country, analysts say. Looters, arsonists, and the disaffected urban poor out on the streets would hardly heed an appeal from the president of a system they felt had failed them.

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In the longer term, Bush faces a tremendous challenge while the Democratic Party has a major opportunity to gain ground against him in the campaign.

Political commentators around the country, particularly liberals, have cited the L.A. riots as a reflection of the despair of America's urban poor, "forgotten" by almost 12 years of Republican administrations. Though most foreign leaders said nothing about Los Angeles, French President Francois Mitterrand called the riots "racial conflict," which is "always wed to poor social programs."

Democratic presidential front-runner Bill Clinton said Friday that the riots prove that the national leadership has let "the very fabric of our society to rot out from under us."

If the Democrats do want to gain ground on Bush, they must frame the issue as one of needing to address the root causes of the violence and not a law-and-order question, say political analysts. Republicans have a traditionally strong image on "law and order." Ronald Reagan's election as California governor in 1966 can, in part, be attributed to his promises of "law and order" following L.A.'s Watts riots in 1965, analysts note.

USH's ability as president to dispatch federal troops to L.A. reinforces an image of Republican toughness. And some observers have commented that Bush's show of force will help him in November, possibly putting California in his camp.

But, says Professor Kernell at UCSD, "domestic crises don't help presidents. Whether they hurt depends on how they handle them."

Kernell points out that after the Watts riots, President Johnson's popularity dropped.

He says that Johnson may have been guilty of raising expectations with the Great Society program he had launched one year earlier and that the rioting could be, in part, attributed to disillusionment with this program.

Bush cannot be accused of falsely raising the hopes of America's urban poor. And in the case of L.A. 1992, the proximate cause of the rioting, the King verdict, is distant from the White House.

"So ironically, L.A. may not hurt him," says Kernell.

James Lengle, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, disagrees. "The more important an issue race is, the more it hurts Bush," he says. "It may be that within a month the issue will die out, replaced by the economy or another [scandal] about Clinton."

But given the events of the past week, the race issue now seems destined for permanent high importance in this presidential campaign.

In 1988, says Dr. Lengle, Bush tried to use race to his advantage. Since then, "he hasn't done much to improve race relations or the economic conditions of the underclass."

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