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Anger, Indifference Mark Bush's Visit to Los Angeles

By Patt Morrison
and Greg Braxton

Los Angeles Times


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 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-Central Los Angeles, Koreatown, a police station -- the way a tourist in happier days would be sure not to miss Mann's Chinese or Universal.

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-Central Baptist church, Bush's voice quavered as he spoke feelingly of being "our brother's keeper." Outside, Pedro Padilla, on his way to class at Jefferson High School, dismissed 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 Association 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.

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 local 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 judge's 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."

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 nametag -- 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 Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who walked to the state building from City Hall, and "Rebuild L.A." head Peter V. Ueberroth, the Democrats' shut-out officialdom held a ground-floor press conference in protest. Among the angry speakers was California state Sen. Diane Watson, 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.

In the Pico-Union district west of downtown, 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 about 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, local 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 Housing and Urban Development 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."