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The nature of the presumed backlash was most succinctly summarized by an only partly ironic Ben Stein, a Los Angeles lawyer and economist whose E-mail to a New York Times columnist was quoted on that paper's op-ed page last Wednesday: "When O.J. gets off," he wrote, "the whites will riot the way we whites do: leave the cities, go to Idaho or Oregon or Arizona, vote for Gingrich... and punish the blacks by closing their day-care programs and cutting off their Medicaid." This grim vision was precisely what politicians feared to articulate. If they benefited from the verdict, they wanted to do so passively.
But author and political analyst Kevin Phillips suggested that candidates need not be so coy, that discussing white anger over the verdict is perfectly legitimate: "The question is whether raising issues like affirmative action or immigration is something that is automatically defined as appealing to the worst in people. If you think people are justified in thinking affirmative action has turned into quotas and that immigration has been mishandled, then people are entitled to be angry about it."
Some Democratic strategists see the opportunity for a more positive message. They suggest that the verdict will confirm a yearning among voters for a healer, a candidate who can bridge that divide-someone, say, like that fellow from Hope. But Bill Clinton is apparently not the top choice for the job. A TIME/CNN poll conducted last week shows that Americans see Powell as the most likely unifier, a figure who transcends race, not a politician who exploits it.
Half of whites and 52% of blacks say Powell understands the needs and problems of people like them. Blacks are far more pessimistic than whites about race in America: only 31% of blacks think race relations will ever improve, whereas 54% of whites think so. Yet a notable 41% of whites and 32% of blacks think Powell would help race relations in America if he were elected President.
Powell played both sides of the verdict. While he said tersely, "We've got to move on," he also noted that "the different reactions to the trial from blacks and whites is something we should not walk away and forget about." Powell may not be able to, even if the issue never explicitly resurfaces. "The verdict is bound to prove psychologically troublesome to Colin Powell," says Phillips, "because it introduces in middle-class and upper-middle-class white minds a question of a type of affirmative action and preference they hadn't thought about before. It's going to be very difficult for Powell to discuss this in a way that doesn't offend blacks or whites."
There is one point of solidarity where blacks and whites come together under the verdict: a mutual distrust of the American justice system. In an odd way, the trial's outcome has coupled the militant white right and disfranchised blacks in the belief that the same hand that planted the glove at Rockingham pulled the trigger at Ruby Ridge. While the Simpson trial wound down, Congress found itself incapable of producing the once surefire counterterrorism bill. It had been derailed by a coalition of conservative Republicans and civil libertarian Democrats concerned about giving broad new powers to law-enforcement officials.