In the Briar Patch?

October 18, 1990

President Bush has been saying for some time that he hoped Congress would not send him a bad civil rights bill he would have to veto. No sir, he sure didn't want to veto a civil rights bill. Please don't send me a bad bill I will have to veto, send me a good one. Now Congress has passed a good bill, and he still says he will veto it. We wonder if that wasn't his desire from the start.

We took the president at face value for a long time, but now we're not so sure. In retrospect his appeals sound something like B'rer Rabbit's when he was beseeching B'rer Fox not to throw him in the briar patch. The president may well have wanted to veto a civil rights bill all along. If so, that could only be for crass political purposes -- an appeal to right-wing voters in the South of the sort that thronged to David Duke in Louisiana's Senate race.

We hope we are mistaken. But consider the handling of the civil rights bill.

The bill basically undoes recent Supreme Court rulings regarding affirmative action, job set-asides and related employment matters. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and some on the White House staff were opposed to the legislation from the start. Mr. Thornburgh said in April that he would recommend a presidential veto if the bill was not changed. It was promptly changed, to the point that in May the president's spokesman called the differences "minimal."

The bill was changed even more. The particular objections of Republicans advising the president had to do with creating "quotas." This was amended to say that "objective standards" -- that is to say statistics, which a quota system relies on -- were not to be the test of hiring practices suspected of being discriminatory. Another of the "minimal" remaining objections had to do with awards for damages. These were capped.

The legislation was rewritten many more times after the president said he was close to accepting it. All the concessions were to his side. Indeed, four liberal Democrats on the House-Senate conference committee, including Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume, abstained on one important amendment they opposed in order to let it pass.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the conservative Utah Republican who worked so hard for a compromise in conference, sounded like a man who wanted to vote for the bill, but was restrained by the president's men. They said Mr. Bush wanted a wholly new element added -- one that would allow employers to discriminate in hiring if that is what the local community or customers prefer. Shades of the 1950s!

A veto would be a mistake for the country and for the president. Unlike some Southern Republicans, George Bush was not bred and born in the briar patch of racist politics. He wouldn't be comfortable there.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.