`Why in the World Did Ed Rollins Say This?'

SOMETIME when the harried Ed Rollins is taking phone calls again, I intend to ask him why he has selected the Monitor's breakfast forum for making highly controversial comments.

On Nov. 9, Mr. Rollins disclosed that the victorious campaign of New Jersey Gov.-elect Christine Todd Whitman, which he managed, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to suppress black voter turnout. Rollins has since retracted his comment. But he has been unable to stop its impact, partly because a dropoff of black vote in that election appears, to some, to corroborate the statement.

Back in the early 1980s Rollins, then a member of President Reagan's staff, stirred up headlines by snapping at his boss during a breakfast for not disciplining Republican members of Congress who did not support the president. Mr. Reagan rebuked Rollins.

Later, during the Bush administration, when Rollins headed the National GOP Congressional Committee, Rollins came to breakfast and lit into John H. Sununu, presidential chief of staff.

But while previous comments made headlines, the latest Rollins ``incident'' has resulted in a firestorm. Both federal and New Jersey state prosecutors are investigating to see if voter suppression did occur and if there were violations of criminal law. What makes recanting so hard is that Rollins had been specific. He said the Whitman campaign offered payments to the favorite charities of black ministers who had endorsed Democratic Governor Florio and asked them not to ``get up on the pulpit Sunday and say it's your moral obligation that you go out on Tuesday and vote for Jim Florio.''

I have been asked again and again: ``Why in the world did Rollins say this?''

Rollins now says he was somehow carried away, somehow induced to exaggerate. He has sent his regrets to Governor-elect Whitman, who has also angrily denied that anything like this came about and offered to stand for a new election if it proves to be true.

The breakfast had been delayed by 45 minutes and because of this there was a falloff of reporters attending. As they straggled in, they grumbled that since Rollins had been ``all over the tube'' for the few days preceding the breakfast, he wouldn't have anything new to tell us. How wrong we were!

Rollins indeed went over old ground, though he wasn't dull. However, there wasn't much worth writing until out of the blue came a question about how Rollins won the New Jersey primary. It wasn't a particularly probing question. Afterwards the questioner was as flabbergasted as we were by the outpouring that followed.

The words simply poured out of Rollins. And we sat back and listened, stunned. At one point, I asked if there had been direct, cash payments to the ministers. Rollins said that the payments were to the ministers' favorite charities.

Why did he say it? I think it was because Rollins equated use of campaign money to suppress black voting with the use of campaign money to encourage black voting. I also think Rollins likes to be the center of controversy but that he slipped and went too far. In my opinion one of the best political strategists I've known got ``carried away.'' In the process, he may have divulged some particles of truth amid the exaggeration. He now swears it was all a boastful lie.

Rollins gave us an epic breakfast. But he severely damaged his career. I'm sorry. I like Ed Rollins.

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