The seamless machinery of the presidency--the studiously balanced photo ops, the urgent cross-town cavalcades from meeting to meeting--did not play very well in Los Angeles on Thursday.
Among the barely cooled embers of the city's recent unrest and the barely cooled tempers of its residents, President Bush was making his presence known, rounding all the bases--South Los Angeles, Koreatown, a police station--the way a tourist in happier days would be sure not to miss Mann's Chinese Theatre or Universal Studios.
But savvy Angelenos, who see on their streets both real car chases and the made-for-TV kind--and know the difference--were not altogether sold on what many shrugged off as feel-good policy-by-performance.
Beneath the green-tile roof of a South Los Angeles Baptist church, on what was coincidentally the National Day of Prayer, Bush's tear-choked voice quavered as he spoke feelingly of being "our brother's keeper." Outside, Pedro Padilla, on his way to class at Jefferson High School, blew off the President's appearance as piggybacking on the city's misery. "It's a political move. He just wants more votes from over here. They really know how to play the little people."
The closest many "little people" got to Bush was at the church.
The heartfelt prayers and hymns inside impressed the overflow crowd, some of them local Republican activists. Emily Holifield, president of the Compton Community College Board of Trustees and a former official of the Compton branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, was "impressed by his message. The message he sent out was that 'I am the President. I am concerned.' "
Outside, on fences and on sidewalks, people were indifferent, or curious, or even angry.
Lorenzo Kennedy, 34, who lives across the street from the church, stood smoking a cigarette. "If I was to say anything to him, I would tell him he's full of jive. . . . I would tell him: 'Comin' here ain't going to do no good. I'm still not going to vote for you. If a woman were running, I'd vote for a woman.' "
Besides, celebrity-wise 10-year-old Chet Shep said, "it's not like seeing M. C. Hammer."
Most had to find a spot around six huge red and white "Feed the Children" big-rigs from an Oklahoma City Christian relief organization. They would soon drive off to a relief kitchen, but were banked around the church at the pastor's request as a security shield and "visual barrier as well," said Allen Jones, son of the Oklahoma City pastor.
Yong-Soo Hyun, a minister and professor at a religious university, came out of the service believing "there is no problem" between most ethnic groups. "The only problem is politicians who make games, who are gonna blame someone." As for Bush, "if he practices what he says, then he will get a lot of credit. But if he just campaigns for the vote, it will be worse."
In the downtown state building, where Bush whooshed unseen from the basement to the 16th floor aboard the judges' elevator, Bradley Solomon, a deputy attorney general, was saying: "We all have political jobs and we look at Bush's visit from a political perspective. We all know he has to visit here for appearance's sake. . . . And if he's here just for the photo opportunity, it will be typical of what might be expected."
An election-year crisis is political catnip; Democratic presidential contender Bill Clinton parachuted in last week, right-wing Republican vox populi Patrick J. Buchanan after that.
If some people were miffed at being swept up in the Bush itinerary, others were miffed at being left out.
Ruben Murillo, an Assembly of God minister--and a booster of a Democratic Latino congressional candidate, according to his name tag--did get invited, but only after the Hispanic Ministers Coalition "had to fight the White House. . . . We had to argue with them all day yesterday."
While Bush was conferring with the likes of Mayor Tom Bradley, who walked to the state building from City Hall, and Rebuild L.A. head Peter V. Ueberroth, who wandered around lost before a radio reporter directed him to the meeting, the Democrats' shut-out officialdom held a ground-floor news conference in protest. Among the angry speakers was state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), whose district was hit hard by rioting, and who had earlier more or less crashed the church service from which she said she had been pointedly excluded.
And in the Pico-Union district west of downtown, where store after store is a heap of charcoal, Salvadoran community leader Carlos Ardon was incensed when he heard Bush's itinerary. "He is visiting South-Central Los Angeles, Koreatown, soldiers and police; why isn't he coming here, to one of the areas hardest hit by violence? It's a disgrace."
Bush headed out early from the Bonaventure Hotel, his motorcade--gleaming Lincolns and a dealership's worth of Chrysler vans--first jamming into the yellow-taped parking lot of the Crenshaw Town Center around 7:30 a.m., as kids hung over the wrought-iron balconies of stucco apartments to watch.
Pre-positioned and waiting were Urban League President John Mack, Scott Watt of the management company that owns the gutted center, dentist William E. Faulkner, whose offices were looted the first night before he and his dog began standing guard, and Boys manager Dereke Carr, 30, who has earned every paycheck of his working life--almost 15 years--from Boys Market.
Under the gaze of rooftop police marksmen, they joined Bush, Wilson and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, walking the right angle of burned-out stores. Carr, who moved to Los Angeles a year before the Watts riots, delivered his plea to Bush that "I want to see him back again and these people not to be forgotten."
Afterward, he said: "I don't know if he can actually feel what we feel day in and day out . . . he's so removed. . . . If he comes back to see the improvement, we'll all know he accomplished something."
Whether people blamed inattention to social programs beforehand or inattention to civil strife afterward, Bush's ears would have been burning had he heard the criticisms:
* From Koreatown Plaza, Paul Kim, owner of an undamaged shop, said he voted for Bush in '88 but would not now. "Bush should have sent troops in here right away. Our stores were being burned and looted and Bush didn't do anything, just talk. Now he's here, and it's too late."
* Near Crenshaw and Slauson, J. Ellis was selling red, white and blue beach umbrellas. "It's possible that this may ease tensions a little, but if he's going to look and not do, this won't serve any purpose."
* W. Hill, 51, was boarding a bus for his county job, watching in disgust as Secret Service agents swept the ravaged shopping plaza. "Does Bush have a plan to do anything around here, or is it just for his election? . . . He shouldn't come here. He don't need to tour here."
* Korean-Americans who lost livelihoods shouted "Compensation! Compensation!' in increasingly rapid cadence as the Bush procession pulled onto a Koreatown street. Behind tinted glass, Bush leaned forward and offered a cramped wave and a smile.
* At Slauson Donuts, no one seemed inclined to abandon morning coffee for a glimpse of a President. "He's only here because it's an election year and he's embarrassed," said Doc Bristo, 60, who owns a janitorial service. "If Bush had really cared about the community, he would have been here long ago. I say, let all the white politicians come here. Let them come down here and see the truth."
High school teacher Bob Boone, 45, heading out with a doughnut and large coffee, agreed. "I've lived in this area for 21 years and a President has never come here. Why now? I would prefer he send an effective representative with a plan and a program than his presence."
From the shopping plaza, Bush's motorcade coursed down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and pulled up at the back door of the LAPD's Southwest Division station, where Bush ducked in to shake hands with day-watch officers as he walked down the aging hallways.
"I think it lifted everyone's spirits," said Capt. Garrett Zimmon. "It was nice to see him taking time out of his busy schedule."
Downtown, inside the State Building, hundreds waited for a glimpse, but were more curious than impressed. Some applauded a banner that was paraded through the atrium and would serve as a backdrop to the Democrats' press conference: "It's not 12 jurors, it's 12 years of Bush."
Legal secretary Melba Bowman "wanted to see if his head really does come to a point." Then, seriously, "Why is he here at all?" she said. "I'll tell you why. He's here because he wants to get elected again. What a coincidence that he's touring L.A. during an election year." She rolled her eyes. "He says he's here to survey the damage. Sure. Like looking at a bunch of burned-out buildings is going to help."
Clerk Steve Noboa said: "We've had problems in the city for a long time. . . . Why has Bush just discovered this? The killing of that girl in the Korean grocery store, the racial prejudice, the homelessness in Los Angeles. Bush doesn't seem to understand any of this."
Down on Crenshaw, students waiting for the bus to a high school in Woodland Hills seemed skeptical but somehow encouraged.
"I was just hoping I would run into him," said basketball player Dionn Cooper, 17. "I'd tell him we need help here. He doesn't know that this city needs help. He needs to stop the gangs."
Classmate Lynn Lewis said: "It's possible that he didn't care before, but maybe he will care when he sees how bad things are around here."