People always said it would take a cataclysm to get the presidential candidates interested in Los Angeles' problems.
Well, folks, here they are.
Thursday, eight days after the beginning of the century's worst urban riot, President Bush viewed the ruins. The unusually heavy security gave the expedition the look of the commander-in-chief's inspection of a recently pacified combat zone. It was a sign of just how dangerous a place Los Angeles is considered by the outside world, or at least by the presidential security corps.
Last Monday, it was Gov. Bill Clinton's turn. As a Democrat, Clinton had to show himself as a man of the people. So he walked along stretches of Vermont Avenue, viewing the rubble in South Los Angeles and Koreatown.
I hate these tours, these hurry-up drop-ins on disasters, mainly to create photo opportunities for politicians on the make. I've covered many of them, always with a sense of embarrassment.
You fly in with the campaign entourage, hustle over to the scene and follow the candidate down the street, taking notes on even the most mundane comments. None of this is any help to the unfortunate residents, who view the alien mob for what it is, an intrusion on their tragedy.
A few polite ones answer the stupid questions reporters ask: How do you feel? What do you think of all this? What do you think of the candidate? The others just walk away.
The circus surrounding the candidates masks one of the most significant facts in the discussion of post-riot recovery: Los Angeles shouldn't expect much assistance from Washington. Bush and Clinton are surprisingly similar on this issue.
You have to do some detective work to find Bush's urban policy, because he hasn't had much of one so far.
As Bush looked at the damage Thursday, there was a gray-haired man walking nearby who is likely to be very important in shaping the Administration's response. He is Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who favors creating jobs and privately owned housing in inner-city neighborhoods notable for their high unemployment and public housing projects.
The odd thing about Kemp, who is a conservative Republican, is that he was the only Administration big shot worrying about the inner city before the riots. "We must discard the failed bureaucratic model for fighting poverty and instead empower individuals to control their lives through the power of property ownership and entrepreneurship," Kemp said.
This does not mean a big infusion of federal dollars. Instead, he would give tax incentives to persuade businesses to locate in inner-city "enterprise zones" and federal funds to permit public housing occupants to buy their apartments.
Kemp's ideas are based on those of conservative researchers in the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank dedicated to dismantling the present federal social welfare system. The foundation was a major source of ideas for the Reagan Administration.
You'd think Kemp would be embraced by the Bush crowd. But the brash, enthusiastic manner of the former Buffalo Bills quarterback has antagonized the President's gray lieutenants, who don't like the fact that Kemp has his own strong following in the Republican Party.
Now, however, he's the only one on the team who can navigate on city streets, and his exile may be over.
Kemp's Heritage Foundation philosophy, surprisingly, finds an echo in the Clinton platform.
Clinton rejects the massive federal aid that was dispatched to urban America after the Watts riots and the other big-city disturbances of the '60s. "Government does not always know what is best or how to do it," Clinton said Monday after touring the rubble.
"My sense is that there will be more federal money, and there should be, but that it will not be a massive bailout. . . . There will be more and more emphasis on what the federal government can do to get the banking system to work, to make free enterprise work in the inner city."
We don't know what Ross Perot thinks. He has announced he's taking 60 days to formulate his policies. But since Perot is a private enterprise guy, he is probably thinking along the same lines.
The huge federal budget deficit dictates this approach. But it is also based on a feeling by many liberals, as well as conservatives, that massive federal aid, dispensed under conditions dictated by Washington, doesn't work.
No matter who is President, this recovery will be conducted under far different conditions than existed after Watts. And no matter who is elected, L.A. won't be forgotten.