Is George Bush the president who understood the danger of Saddam Hussein's aggression and rallied the world against it? Or is he the man who made Willie Horton an issue in his campaign for president? The question is raised by Bush's veto of the civil rights bill. For the man with a sure sense of how to bring people together in foreign policy was unsure and unconvincing on this most delicate domestic issue, dividing instead of healing.
"I've known President Bush for 40 years, and it's hard for me to believe that he doesn't have some sensitivities here." That comment was made in frustration by William T. Coleman Jr., the former secretary of transportation, a distinguished Republican lawyer who tried to rescue the civil rights bill in negotiations with the president and his aides.
Coleman talked with the president and was given what he thought was a mandate to work out a good bill with White House assistance. But when he met chief of staff John Sununu, Coleman said, this is what happened:
"I would go into a room and have a discussion with Gov. Sununu. Eventually we would agree on something and we'd ask Boyden Gray (the White House counsel) to put it in writing. It would never get put in writing. I'd sit down and say, "Okay, explain what is wrong with the bill and if you convince me Congress made a mistake, I will change it.' They never would explain."
The veto was the more frustrating to Coleman, and inexplicable, because he had the agreement of leading Republican senators for a compromise bill. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was the key figure. After 40 hours of negotiations he endorsed a text hammered out with Coleman.
Other Republicans praised the compromise. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York told him, Coleman said, "Bill, I'm for you all the way." But D'Amato voted to sustain the president's veto, as did Hatch.
Why did Bush say no? The reason he gave was that the bill would lead businesses to use racial quotas in hiring. But that explanation conflicted with the record of experience.
In 1971, in the Griggs case, the Supreme Court held unanimously that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited not only intentional discrimination in hiring but practices that had the effect of hurting women and minorities. Businesses operated under that standard for 18 years without using quotas.
Then last year, in the Wards Cove case, a 5-to-4 majority of the Supreme Court reinterpreted the Civil Rights Act. It said employees who sued over a practice that tended to exclude women or minorities had the burden of proving that the practice was not related to job requirements.
Ironically, the Wards Cove decision was an example of what Bush has said courts should not do: "legislate." The statute was the same in 1989 as in 1971; the court simply rewrote its meaning.
The vetoed legislation would have put the burden back on employers to prove that a practice with a discriminatory effect was necessary for business reasons.
The legislation made other modest changes in recent court interpretations. At Coleman's urging, civil rights groups agreed to a number of late compromises in order to avoid a divisive struggle.
But the president could not be convinced. Coleman gave this account:
"He would tell me: "I'm not a lawyer. If my lawyers say the bill would mean quotas, what can I do?'
"I said, "Why don't you talk to some of your friends in the Senate who are lawyers? Get Hatch and Rudman and Specter up here.'
"But with the budget and the Middle East, I think he just didn't have time."
That is the explanation of a man who has campaigned for George Bush and believes in his fundamental decency. A less charitable view is that the president let himself be used by people who didn't want a civil rights bill. They wanted an issue.
The word "quotas" is a political red flag. Some Republicans count on it to win the votes of white workers who are angry at what they consider coddling of blacks. These politicians do not care that the quota charge here flies in the face of history.
Is George Bush one of those wavers of the red flag, playing politics with the dangerous issue of race? Or does he simply have no beliefs? This was a defining moment, and we still have no definition.
New York Times News Service