No Toms Need Apply

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The word from Austin is that if George W. Bush becomes our next president, he would like to appoint three blacks to high-level positions — Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as National Security Adviser and a third person yet to be named. Powell and Rice would be serving in government posts more important than those held by any other African American — even in the Administration of a certain Democrat who bragged that he wanted his Cabinet to "look like America." That's a huge irony, considering that 92% of blacks slapped aside Bush's claim to be a different kind of Republican and voted against him. Even more of them would have done so if they hadn't run into alleged harassment at polling places — obstacles that the N.A.A.C.P. charged last week were the result of a plot to deny blacks their voting rights in Florida and four other states.

For some shortsighted politicians, such a wholesale rejection at the polls might bring thoughts of payback. Yet even some of Bush's strongest black opponents, such as Chicago Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., say they expect just the opposite from George W. Appointing Powell and Rice, they say, would be a way for Bush to court the group that spurned him most. "I've heard Republican strategists like Newt Gingrich argue that if they could just get 15% of the black vote, they would be in power for a millennium," says Jackson, who at 35 is showing signs of being as wily as his father. "So I'm expecting Bush to make an unparalleled effort to reach out."

But the strategy won't work if W. follows the cynical example set by his dad and Ronald Reagan. Their approach to racial diversity was to appoint token blacks like Clarence Thomas, whose main credential was being conservative. Many blacks wrote off Thomas and his ilk as turncoats. Nor would it matter how many blacks Bush appointed if they, like Thomas, espouse policies that most African Americans abhor.

That's why it's so urgent to know who that third Cabinet choice might be. Last week sources involved in the transition floated the name of William Gray, a Democratic former Congressman from Philadelphia who now heads the United Negro College Fund, as a possible Secretary of Education. One big reason: the fund has been a favorite Bush-family charity since the days of W.'s grandfather Prescott. But when I talked to Gray last week, he made it clear that he's not interested. He is opposed to key elements of Bush's education-reform proposals, especially vouchers.

Still, if Gray is too liberal for a Bush Cabinet, there are many other respected African-American politicians and scholars who might be willing to join it, provided they were given some real influence over policy. Some of my black Republican friends are pushing the Rev. Floyd Flake, pastor of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Queens, N.Y., who, despite spending six terms as a Democratic member of Congress, endorsed Republican Rudy Giuliani for mayor of New York City. Flake, whose 10,000-member congregation supports an independent academy that offers an alternative to the area's lousy public schools, has emerged as a forceful advocate of vouchers. Others back Rod Paige, superintendent of schools in Houston. Or Joyce Ladner, a sociologist at the Brookings Institution, whose idea of reviving orphanages to rescue kids from dysfunctional homes was appropriated by Gingrich. The big question is whether Bush would be wise enough to add independent-minded blacks of that caliber to his inner circle or would he succumb to the old Republican habit of stacking his government with second raters and Uncle Toms.