Topic A of Washington conversation this week was the White House's frenetic effort to justify President Bush's threat to veto the House-passed civil-rights measure that he calls "a quota bill." The more its Democratic sponsors modified the legislation to meet the president's objections, the more determined he appeared to reject it. The cynical _ and possibly accurate _ theory is that Bush knows the polarizing power of the quota issue and wants to sharpen it to a knife's edge for the 1992 campaign. My guess is that personal pique plays a larger part in this than political strategy. But that only raises a more basic question: How can a man with Bush's life-long history of tolerance and decency in racial matters rationalize playing politics with the most sensitive issue in American life?
The answer, I think, is that he has mastered the psychological art of blaming the other side for whatever tactics he chooses to use. He carries in his head a gentleman's definition of the rules of the political game. And he finds frequent and convenient reasons to believe that his opponents have violated those rules by questioning his motives or besmirching his good name. And that belief allows him to sanction scorched-earth tactics against them.
On the civil-rights bill, Bush clearly sees himself as a victim of foul play. The other day you could watch him on TV, pounding the podium and accusing unnamed "beltway interest groups" of wanting "to grind me into the political dirt." His targets were the same civil-rights leaders to whom he had opened his office and his home as vice president, when almost no one else in the Reagan administration would give them the time of day. But now they were supporting the Democrats' bill.
The president's language conveyed a tone of genuine (or at least genuinely felt) victimization. "Let me talk from the heart here," he said. "I have been accused of playing politics _ playing election politics with this issue. And very frankly, it's the other way around _ and it has been for some time. My opponents won't even consider my civil-rights bill. They keep changing theirs to attract different blocs of voters . . . just plain, pure politics, a politics of selective inclusion and exclusion. . . ."
A close friend of the president says Bush tends to "shrug off" most criticism but reacts angrily when the race issue is involved because "he and his family are committed" to what Bush himself calls "fair play."
But in fact, he has ordered massive retaliation when critics have touched a nerve on matters far removed from race or civil rights. There was an example of that 15 months ago when House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., said "the Bush foreign policy . . . (is) adrift, without vision, without imagination, without a guiding light save precious public-opinion polls." Already angered by a Gephardt statement that Bush's support of capital-gains tax cuts was a financial reward for his wealthy friends and supporters, the president decided to squash him.
Senate Minority Whip Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., a close friend of the president, took material prepared by the Republican National Committee and delivered a floor speech attacking Gephardt as a "frustrated font of trivia" and a man driven by an "obsessive and overweening" presidential ambition.
The vehemence of the Simpson assault _ and the White House's eagerness to acknowledge that Bush had encouraged it _ raised eyebrows. But Gephardt is not alone in getting under Bush's skin. The president has complained to friends that Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, "never misses a chance" to undercut him. And his comments suggest that despite his high standing in the polls, he believes the Democrats have picked on him, not just on civil rights but on many other fronts.
The "quota bill" campaign, like the 1988 Willie Horton campaign, shows just how far this talent for self-victimization lets Bush go in "retaliatory" strikes that scar, not just his opponents, but the country.
Washington Post Writers Group