As an antitrust lawyer, Charles A. James chose a profession where African Americans like himself are hardly in abundance. So when he recently caught a movie called AntiTrust, he took particular note of a character played by Richard Roundtree. "I assumed," James says with a wry smile, "he must have been playing me."
Soon James will enter another sphere not normally known for its ethnic diversity--a Republican Administration. The 46-year-old Washington law partner, known for his faith in free markets and his weakness for German sports cars, has been tapped to run the Antitrust Div. in President George W. Bush's Justice Dept.
Surprisingly, James will hardly be a solo act. The ensemble that is the Bush Administration is positively teeming with African American talent. There are the highly visible choices, of course: Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Education Secretary Roderick Paige. But what's less well known is that Bush has since appointed six more African Americans to crucial posts just below Cabinet rank, making his the only Republican Administration to have blacks in significant numbers.
Joining James will be Larry D. Thompson, who, as Deputy Attorney General, will occupy the No. 2 slot at Justice. Then there's Ralph F. Boyd Jr., nominated to be chief of the Civil Rights Div. Bush confidant Alphonso R. Jackson is awaiting confirmation as Deputy Housing Secretary. Colin Powell's son, Michael, is the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Bush's campaign adviser on budget issues, Albert Hawkins, is Secretary of Cabinet Affairs, where he will coordinate the activities of government agencies and departments with the White House. And if these aren't enough, there's a small army of twenty- and thirtysomething aides getting plum political jobs at the White House and agencies. "What we're looking at here," observes Lonnie P. Taylor, a black Republican and lead lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "is a long way from tokenism."
What makes this all the more surprising is that 92% of blacks who went to the polls in November voted against Bush--the worst showing for the GOP among African Americans in two decades. So why would Bush make such a dramatic gesture to a community that snubbed him?
One reason is politics. Getting only 8% of the black vote might seem like an unmitigated disaster. But to Bush, it's an opportunity. When he first ran for Texas governor in 1994, he took just 12% of the black vote. Four years later, after Bush had installed blacks in several top jobs and his education plan had resulted in a sharp spike in minority test scores, he won 27% of the black vote. "He understands the importance of giving people a seat at the table," says Oklahoma Representative J.C. Watts Jr., the lone black Republican in Congress and an adviser to Bush on minority appointments. "Is this going to add up to 40% in 2004? I don't think so. But he's exploiting an opportunity and showing that his heart is in the right place."
HITTING ITS STRIDE. Another reason is demographics. Aides say Bush is naming a lot of blacks to senior positions in part because he's the first Republican who has a large enough pool to pick from. Bush became President just as the first big wave of blacks to attend the nation's elite colleges and law schools is hitting its stride. Even the subset that is Republican provides Bush with an ample bench.
The result: With relative ease, Bush is fielding a team of overachievers. With the possible exception of Boyd--a former federal prosecutor with no background in civil-rights litigation--they all have killer resumes. James runs one of the largest antitrust practices in the world at Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue. Michael K. Powell has been an FCC commissioner since 1997, where he has displayed an acumen for complex telecom issues. Thompson is a former U.S. Attorney in Atlanta. Jackson ran housing agencies in Dallas and Washington, before becoming a wealthy utility executive. Hawkins is a former Texas budget chief. Even Boyd, the least experienced of the group, has been an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston.
Overall, this is a wonkish group that is more inclined to policy than politics. The only black in the entire Bush Administration to hold substantial elective office is Education Secretary Paige, a former Houston school-board member. But their lack of interest in elective politics doesn't mean they're not passionate about their beliefs. James and the younger Powell, for instance, feel strongly that Democratic Administrations often overreached on regulatory issues. Boyd told anyone who would listen that Bill Clinton should have been criminally prosecuted for his behavior in the Monica Lewinsky matter.
None of them would speak explicitly about the controversial issue of affirmative action. But a couple have staked out positions that suggest they disagree with the black community's consensus that minorities should receive race-based preferences. Jackson left the Democratic Party after the 1984 convention when he decided that it was obsessed with compartmentalizing the American public. "The larger picture should be what's best for America," he says, "not what's best for African Americans--one sector; what's best for women--another sector; what's best for Hispanics, etc."
Michael Powell, too, has raised some eyebrows on race issues--setting him apart from his father, who has endorsed affirmative action. In his first press conference as FCC chairman, the younger Powell criticized programs promoting minority ownership of broadcast stations. In the minds of some, he also belittled the "digital divide," or lack of access minority and low-income people have to the Internet and other technologies. He joked that he saw a "Mercedes-Benz divide" that prevented government employees like him from affording their car of choice.
These African Americans also wear their Republicanism as a badge of courage, having spent much of their careers defending their party choice to fellow blacks. "A lot of these folks have faced considerable peer pressure," says Paige. "I know I have."
So has Ronald I. Christie, a 31-year-old domestic-policy aide in the White House. He began his career working for Representative John R. Kasich (R-Ohio). "When I first started on Capitol Hill, people looked at me and said, `How can you be a Republican?"'
There's no common thread for how they came onto Bush's radar screen. A few--most notably Jackson--can boast personal as well as political connections to Bush. He has been a friend of the President for many years. His wife, Marcia, is tight with the First Lady. And daughter Leslie pals around with the Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna. With ties like these, muses one friend, "he'll definitely be the most powerful Deputy HUD Secretary in history."
The others didn't have that kind of access. James almost prides himself on not being involved with politicians. A Republican since his days as a student at Wesleyan University, he was trying to get the Administration's attention to champion a law-firm colleague when he was told by the White House he was the one they were interested in. After one meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft, he was offered the job.
Hawkins' relationship with Bush and his Republicanism are inseparably intertwined. He was a Democrat before then-Governor Bush plucked him out of semi-obscurity as a budget analyst at the nonpartisan Austin (Tex.) Legislative Budget Board to be his budget director. Hawkins says he found himself in strong agreement with Bush's conservative fiscal policies. He also realized that his views on religion and family were classically conservative. "I believe you do have responsibility for your personal behavior and actions," he says. "You honor God and your family." Still, he says, his defection was not sudden. "It's not like I was traveling down the road to Damascus and there was this blinding light and I was converted," he says.
Boyd is the blank slate in the group--exactly what the Administration sought for what is probably the most racially sensitive post in government. In the bizarre calculus of confirmation politics, White House officials reasoned that a background in civil-rights litigation would be more of a liability than an asset since it would give activists on the far left or the far right a record to attack. Thompson, too, is hard to assess. He's not considered a "movement" conservative, though he has friends who are. One of them is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom he represented during his bitterly contested 1991 confirmation.
If there's a grand political scheme in all of this, many of the appointees say they don't see it. Bill Clinton, James observes, made a big deal out of an Administration that would "look like America." But in hindsight, he says, "I'm not sure there are many people who would say that that made much difference." The same is true now with Bush. "I don't think black Americans will say, `Aha--I was wrong,' just because he appointed a Larry Thompson or a Charles James. I just don't think there's any mileage in this."
People on the outside looking in aren't so sure about that. J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's Secretary of State and a possible addition to the Bush fraternity, says Bush is trying to create a new set of black leaders to counter more traditional, liberal-leaning civil-rights leaders. "He understands that many African American leaders wear two hats," says Blackwell, "one as the head of their respective organizations and the other as Democratic operatives."
Along with naming blacks to high-profile jobs, Bush also is courting black religious leaders. On Mar. 19, he met with 15 heads of African American churches, his second such confab with black religious leaders.
But if creating a new leadership is part of what Bush is after, it won't work, says William H. Gray III, a former Democratic Representative from Philadelphia and now president of the United Negro College Fund. "You can't develop a leadership for a community," says Gray. "The community chooses its own leadership."
Clearly, Bush faces a special burden. Not only was he rejected en masse by African American voters, but in the aftermath of Florida's recount, most blacks continue to believe that voting irregularities put the wrong man in office. By a 76% to 16% margin, blacks think Bush was not legitimately elected, according to a Mar. 8-12 New York Times/CBS News Poll. "Black attitudes toward Bush, and Republicans in general, are going to take a fair amount of time to soften," says David A. Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, a think tank focusing on African American issues.
NOTHING PERSONAL. But there is a bright side for Bush. Much of the vote against him, political experts say, was the result of animosity to the party in general--not him personally--and undiminished support for the highly popular Clinton-Gore Administration. With both Clinton and Gore out of the picture, at least for the time being, Bush is jumping at the chance to reach out to blacks. "I think there's some real opportunity for him," says Representative Melvin L. Watt, a black Democrat from North Carolina.
The tricky part for Bush, black leaders say, is that he'll have to follow through on these appointments with policies that impress African American voters. The prevailing view among blacks is that the GOP does not look out for their best interests on an array of topics ranging from civil rights to education to tax policy. If Bush can't convince African Americans that he's not the enemy, the diversity in his Administration may not much matter.
By Dan Carney, with Richard S. Dunham, in Washington