The first thing I thought of when they told me he was dead was the sight of his
mother standing in the small living room in Philadelphia and holding a pair of
his pants and shaking her head. "He grew five inches last summer," she said of
her son, Wilt Chamberlain, a high school boy. "I don't know how we can keep
getting clothes for him."
I had been writing for a then-famous magazine called the Saturday Evening Post,
which was published in Philadelphia. Wilt's father was in the engineering
department. Because of this, I dropped by the house and went to see him play an
afternoon game for his high school, Overbrook. The game was against Dobbins
Vocational High School and Wilt was so overpowering that you wondered if
basketball could survive Chamberlain.
I tell this because I fail to see how I'm serving you if I pass up chances like
this to tell you something you didn't know.
And now on Friday afternoon, I was walking on 44th Street in Manhattan and when
I passed Town Hall I remembered something with no charm to it at all,
something utterly lousy, but I tell it today because they have started
campaigns so unconscionably early that it becomes pertinent.
In 1988, Al Gore, who once had been Albert Gore Jr., but now it was better for
him to be just Al, was in New York running for president in the Democratic
then the mayor, who was at the top of his race-baiting.
Koch called out, "A Jew has to be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson."
Koch was calling out, "Al Charlatan" for Al Sharpton.
Gore attacked Jackson because he was a black opponent who was too popular in
the city. The idea was to separate Jesse Jackson from all the whites,
particularly Jews, so Gore could profit. That's all I got out of the whole
campaign. And for a good reason: That's all there was to get out of it.
Straight race by Gore.
Jackson soon was receiving so many threats that he had to go around with a
bulletproof raincoat that weighed so much he could hardly move. Jackson said
that even in Selma, he never had received as many threats.
Then one night here at Town Hall, which I am walking by as I remember this on
Friday, Gore was in a debate with Dukakis and Jackson and at one point he
vice president, candidate for president, had been whispering around. There had
been prisoners released in Massachusetts on a furlough program and they had
The big name was Willie Horton, who had killed and raped. The furlough program
was a federal idea and had been used everywhere. It was a policy in
Massachusetts before Dukakis was governor. Yes, it happened. No matter that so
many everywhere had been furloughed without an incident. All that counted was
that Willie Horton had gone on a rampage.
Horton was black.
Gore got on the stage at Town Hall and announced that Dukakis was weak on crime
and the furlough policy proved it.
The primary went on and Dukakis won the state, Jackson the city and Gore
nothing. He ended his campaign.
But Gore left his southern contribution to the year's politics.
Lee Atwater, with a southern twang, announced that he would make Horton the
most famous name in America. He did. His contribution to America was to run a
black and white commercial showing evil black faces getting out of a prison.
Ran it over and over. They are coming to get you.
The commercial ran so much that one of the inmates of the Maryland State
Penitentiary got an old television set for Willie Horton's cell. Horton sat
there, a convict doing life, and listened to George Bush, about to be
president, using his name.
The commercial in black and white was straight racist and George Bush reveled
in it and won.
Later, Atwater had a brain tumor and came to hated New York for help, to
Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. The violence in the black neighborhoods of a
big city that had thrilled him so much in a campaign now was right downstairs,
with two cab drivers shot dead after picking up visitors. Atwater's family, up
here to visit him, had to call for the same kind of cabs when they left the
hospital at night.
Life was no longer one of the son's commercials about the dangerous blacks.
I remember speaking to one of his doctors and I asked him:
"Does he ever stop to think of ending up here after all he did?"
"It would be interesting to ask him but the poor fellow is too sick," the
And it will be interesting to see if Gore, when he comes here to campaign this
time, still brings with him his quaint Tobacco Road customs.