How Black Americans See Clinton Trip

A fairly positive view of Africa tour mirrors president's popularity among US blacks.

James Smith places his paperback book over his knees and flashes a wry smile.

"Clinton's trip? It'll result in some good," says the retired Navy man, enjoying the summery weather in Washington's Lafayette Park. "It'll probably mean more trade agreements - that's why he brought those businessmen along."

Bill Clinton's 12-day tour of Africa, by far the longest visit ever to that continent by an American president, has attracted more attention by African-Americans, like Mr. Smith, than it has among Americans in general, according to a Pew Research Center poll due out tomorrow.

In interviews in Washington and Miami, blacks were generally positive about the president's sojourn, a reflection perhaps of his enormous popularity among African-Americans. Some people were glad Mr. Clinton had taken an extended trip, way beyond the Beltway, if only to get away from his troubles at home.

"I'm glad he had a chance to go out to that game reserve [in Botswana]," says Kathy Brooks, assistant principal of Benton Harbor, Mich., high school, who is visiting Washington. "He needed a little rest and relaxation."

Felicia Long, a security guard downtown, also expresses general support for Clinton and the trip. "They should just leave him alone," she says, referring to investigations into his personal life. "He's doing a good job. You know, I really like him - he seems down to earth."

Throughout his presidency, Clinton has enjoyed strong support among African-Americans - even polling slightly ahead of black leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson last year in a national survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Clinton had a favorable rating of 89 percent versus 87 percent for Mr. Jackson.

David Bositis, an expert on African-American opinion at the Joint Center, surmises that blacks in particular might be quick to defend Clinton over his private life, given the threats that Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders experienced over their own personal lives.

More about slavery

Clinton's semi-apology for slavery sparked a mixed response among blacks.

Some were glad the president had opened the door to further discussion on this sensitive aspect of American history. Others felt that mere words from a president born decades after slavery ended couldn't possibly do justice to the issue.

"How can you apologize for something you didn't do?" says Robert from northern Virginia, who declined to give his last name. Still, he thinks it's important for white people to face up to history: "That's the only way we can move forward. I'm tired of white people thinking that they're not prejudiced just because they have one black friend. That's garbage."

The comment on slavery "is a first step," says Smith, the Navy retiree. "But it's way beyond apologizing. I don't think it's just for him to deal with. Congress needs to get in there too," he says, though he does not think financial compensation for African-Americans over slavery is appropriate.

In Washington, many blacks - like the population as a whole - weren't paying much attention to the president's trip.

In Miami, most African-Americans seemed more concerned this week about filing their real-estate taxes on time than about Clinton's travels.

Cathy Taylor, a Miami mother of four girls, says Clinton's visit could help him better understand the situations of black Americans. "He needs to know why there was slavery."

Other things to do

But Manny Walter thinks the president's trip is but a diversion that is keeping him from dealing with crises facing blacks in America. "He's trying to get the black population to think he cares about us," says Mr. Walter, a self-employed car assessor in Miami. "But [the trip] is not benefiting us."

"He's got a lot of things he needs to do here instead of going to Africa," says Walter. "I feel we're being cheated. We struggle. We've got drugs coming in, the black men are getting all the prison time."

"[Clinton] did a good thing," objects Jerry Linda, a retired insurance agent in northwest Miami. "It will help both places." She says the president's visit to Africa could send a message of hope to people living in the globe's "most dreaded countries."

"It makes a difference for a head of state to come and pay you a compliment, and that alone lets you know you're being thought of," says Ms. Linda, though she doesn't feel Clinton is "equipped" to talk about slavery.

Still, Clinton's visit could lead to real, long-term benefits for the US and the world, Linda says. The greatest reward of Clinton's trip, she feels, is the message of South Africa President Nelson Mandela.

"Empathy is the only word I can think of that Mandela was trying to impart to Clinton," Linda says. "Mandela tried to get him to be a little more understanding toward Castro."

Isabelle de Pommereau contributed to this article from Miami.

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