Democrats in Los Angeles for their convention finally demonstrated what the George W. Bush campaign calls message discipline by extinguishing a little brush fire that broke out over the weekend.
African-American members of Congress said they were cool to Al Gore's choice of Joe Lieberman as his running mate because of the Connecticut senator's record on affirmative action and his support for school vouchers.
On his first day in Los Angeles, veep nominee-to-be Lieberman received almost unequivocal support from the Democratic convention's African-American caucus. That solved an awkward problem that arose within the Democrats' most loyal constituency when Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Maxine Waters expressed doubts about Lieberman.
Several hundred black caucus-goers sprang to their feet to greet Lieberman with a standing ovation, after Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton buttered up the crowd with introductory speeches in praise of Lieberman.
"I want to thank you, Joe Lieberman, for your perfect voting record on affirmative action," Norton said, setting the see-no-evil tone. "If you're with me most of the time, you the man! Don't go far, but you the man!"
A relaxed-looking Lieberman, who had arrived in Los Angeles in the middle of the night, was embraced onstage by several black congressmen. He then took the podium and told the caucus, "You mean so much to me, and you mean so much to our party."
"The record is all there," Lieberman said. He then detailed his voting and speaking record on affirmative action. He said he regrets a remark he made about an anti-affirmative action California ballot initiative known as Proposition 209 before he knew much about it.
"I have supported affirmative action. I do support affirmative action. And I will support affirmative action," Lieberman said.
Lieberman addressed blacks' concerns about a statement he made in 1995, in the midst of what he called a "swirl" of public dialogue re-examining the efficacy of affirmative action.
He also cited two Senate votes he cast in defense of affirmative action, one against a 1995 bill that would have ended it, and a more recent one in favor of a law that helps women and minorities get highway construction contracts.
Lieberman told the audience he had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and worked on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee with civil rights giants and black caucus members such as John Lewis.
On vouchers, Lieberman said he supported three-year experiments because he knew parents with children in failing schools in low-income neighborhoods in his home state of Connecticut.
"We're all on one court now," said Texas delegate Otis Hopkins, who was pleased that Lieberman came to "clear the air."
Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, who cnducted Lieberman around to his rehearsal on the empty convention stage Tuesday morning, and to the black caucus, said it was good for black Democrats to hear Lieberman's record from the "horse's mouth."
Georgia delegate Mtesa Cottemond, a 27-year-old lawyer who is "very happy" with what she heard from Lieberman, said many blacks are frustrated with the pace of change for African-Americans in public life, but the history-making choice of Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, could open the door to a future female, African-American, Hispanic or Asian-American nominee.
Asked about an impolite subject - whether Lieberman's religion was a factor in the suspicion of some blacks toward the veep designate, - Cottemond said, "My generation was born after the civil rights movement. We don't understand; my mother my father my grandmother had to tell me - Jews walked with us. They were very instrumental" in the civil rights movement. Cottemond thinks that story, and Tuesday's reframing of Lieberman's record, will help energize blacks who are tentative about the ticket.
Lieberman even led the crowd in a spontaneous "Happy Birthday" serenade to Maxine Waters, and for his trouble, he got a verbal spanking from Waters, who described the behind-the-scenes rapprochement in a way that made it sound as if she personally had brought him to heel.
Out of the other side of her mouth, a more statesmanlike Waters said, "We now feel very comfortably" and "we can go forward" to get Gore-Lieberman elected.
Waters did not apologize for causing the appearance of dissension within the party. She told the enthused audience, "Until you stand up and question, you won't know where people stand. Its all right to do this. It is honorable to do this."
Camera lights ablaze, a sizable press pack descended on Waters, who conducted a press conference a couple feet from the stage while a speaker tried to lead a closing prayer and fellow members of Congress watched, shaking their heads.