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Fine words, shabby deeds

Our president says the trouble with the Democrats' civil rights bill, expected to reach the House floor today, is that it's just too divisive. "It invites people to litigate, not cooperate, and this is no way in our country to promote harmony," he told graduating cadets at West Point on Saturday. "And so, let us cast off now the politics of division. Let's build a society in which people respect each other, work with, not against, each other, and strive to illuminate the American character." Fine words, but like most of his pronouncements on issues affecting fair play for minorities, they ring increasingly hollow.

Excuse us, but this is the same George Bush whose White House aides cynically squashed voluntary negotiations between the Business Roundtable and civil rights groups a few weeks ago, isn't it? That sure looked like two groups of Americans who were trying to "work with, not against, each other" _ until White House chief of staff John Sununu and chief counsel C. Boyden Gray threatened to make life miserable for the businesses unless they broke off the talks. The businesses did.

If his aides violated his West Point nostrums without his knowledge, maybe Mr. Bush ought to fire them. Or does the president possess some insight that eludes the growing numbers in the civil rights community who are becoming disgusted with his race-baiting politics? Perhaps there is some explanation other than the one that suggests itself _ that on civil rights, at least, Mr. Bush stands clearly revealed as a shameless hypocrite? That he is in fact practicing "the politics of division" because polls show that'll get him re-elected?

Mr. Bush's whole opposition to the bill supposedly stems from his desire to protect businesses from having to resort to racial hiring quotas to avoid costly discrimination lawsuits. So if the big businesses that compose the Roundtable were willing to work out their concerns at the negotiation table, he should have been delighted. And if small business had a different set of concerns, who knows what might've happened if he had encouraged them to sit down as well?

Obviously, what might've happened is that he could have lost a juicy campaign issue. So instead of setting a high example of "illuminating the American character," he is further spreading the darkness of his own fear-mongering Willie Horton campaign ploy and that of his fellow Republican Jesse Helms _ whose shameless "white hands" ad stunk up his North Carolina Senate campaign against a black opponent.

Despite some side issues and red herrings accumulated along the way, the Democrats' civil rights bill remains a needed measure to correct what almost everyone agrees was a disastrous run of Supreme Court decisions in 1989 that seriously weakened job protections that had worked well for 20 years or more. By passing the bill with a veto-proof majority, the House could send a strong message to Mr. Bush that race-baiting is unacceptable politics in the 1990s, and put the onus on the Senate to do the same.

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