President Bush said Saturday that he wanted to "destroy the racial mistrust that threatens our national well-being as much as violence or drugs or poverty" and called for support for his civil rights bill, saying it would avert employment quotas. "We must think of ourselves not as colors or numbers," he said at the 193rd commencement of the United States Military Academy here, "but as Americans, as bearers of sacred values."
Bush presented diplomas to each of the 915 graduates of the academy, which he hailed as an institution where people are measured by "merit, heart and will _ not creed or sex or color or national origin."
He attacked the competing civil rights bill, backed by the House Democratic leadership, as a "quota bill, regardless of how its authors dress it up." A provision declaring quotas illegal was added to the bill last week, but Bush said, "You can't put a sign on a pig and say it's a horse."
The Democratic bill, designed to overrule a series of 1989 Supreme Court decisions that made it harder for victims of job discrimination to sue and collect damages, is expected to be passed this week by the House.
Supporters hope, and the White House apparently fears, that they can muster the two-thirds majority that would be necessary to override a threatened presidential veto.
Bush, who has been hammering against the bill in recent days, said, "It invites people to litigate, not cooperate, and this is no way in our country to promote harmony.
"And so, let us cast off now the politics of division," he said. "Let's build a society in which people respect each other, work with, not against each other, and strive to illuminate the American character."
The audience of cadets and their families gave him a polite hearing, without the heckling or demonstrations that met him recently at Hampton and Yale universities.
The crowd gave his civil rights message modest applause at only two points, when he said his bill would "not force employers to choose between using quotas or the risk of costly litigation," a charge he has made against the Democratic bill, and when he said his administration "will strike at discrimination wherever it exists."
Saturday's topic, Bush's view of race relations in America, had been planned for several weeks. But it gained relevance when House leaders put off a vote on the civil rights bill. They had planned to bring it up earlier in May, and then had hoped to vote on it last week. Now they plan a vote on Tuesday.
The bill is similar to the one Bush vetoed last year. But a few specific changes, including the anti-quota section, and alterations in the makeup of the House since last year's election, have given sponsors serious hopes of mustering the critical two-thirds majority.
In his speech, Bush contended that today's civil rights leaders had forgotten the message of their predecessors of the 1960s when the goal was "equality of opportunity and equality under the law."
Bush also made a point of noting that the academy was graduating both its thousandth black and its thousandth woman.