WASHINGTON, June 25 -- After a five decades-long political alignment that began with an endorsement of Richard Nixon in the 1940s, famed jazz musician Lionel Hampton is switching his colors. He's endorsing a Democrat for president. 'I originally joined the Republican party because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln,' the 88-year-old 'King of the Vibes' said in a statement Tuesday. 'Over the years,' he said, 'I became personally friendly with and supported Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Prescott and George Bush, as well as John Lindsay, Nelson Rockefeller and many others who are still friends. 'But,' Hampton said, 'it seems the Republican party of today doesn't recognize the views of moderate Republicans like me.' Hampton made his choice known in a decided low-key manner. Prior to President Clinton's appearance at a fund-raiser dinner Monday evening in New York City, Hampton met privately with Clinton and expressed his support. 'He wanted to meet with Bill Clinton, shake his hand, and say, 'I've decided to support you,' and that's what he did,' said Hampton spokesman Phil Leshin. The event marked a major shift for Hampton, who has a been playing good vibes for Republicans ever since the late 1940s, when he campaigned for Nixon when the future president was a young California congressman. Hampton also served on the Republican National Committee, and called a 1981 White House tribute from President Reagan 'the greatest honor I've ever had.' But in granting his first endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate since Harry Truman, Leshin said, Hampton was protesting the hard-line policies brought to Congress by the new Republican majority elected in 1994.
'He's always been a Republican, and a strongly staunch Republican who contributed heavily to Republican causes,' Leshin said. 'It's been, my guess, longer than any other public figure other than maybe Barry Goldwater.' 'But during the (current presidential) primary season, he became disenchanted with some of the extreme positions, shall we say, expressed by a certain wing of the party,' Leshin said. 'And he just made this decision one day. 'He just called me up and said, 'I think this time I'm going to support Bill Clinton. I like Bill Clinton,'' Leshin said. 'It was as simple as that. It was very unusual.' Leshin said Hampton's switch would be particularly welcome by his fellow entertainers, most of whom are Democrats. 'Everybody in show business is always on his back' about his party affiliation, Leshin said. 'They are going to be as surprised as anybody else -- he kept this pretty well to himself.' Democrats were quick to trumpet the news. 'President Clinton and Vice President Gore appreciate the support of Mr. Hampton,' deputy campaign manager Ann Lewis said in a statement Tuesday. Leshin, however, warned Democrats not to get too accustomed to the support of Hampton, who still plays gigs even while suffering from walking and speaking difficulties resulting from three strokes over the past five years. 'I think next time he'll be back with the Republican party,' Leshin said.