RALPH G. NEAS, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1990 that ''George Bush is a Ronald Reagan in sheep's clothing.'' Wrong. Mr. Bush's veto reveals him to be in bed with David Duke.
That Louisiana Klansman and Nazi-loving-Republican hired plastic surgeons to make himself prettier and invented a heroic past to seem more all-American. He's a legislator who hasn't passed any bills, but his real goal is survival at the public trough while pushing anti-minority, anti-Jewish, anti-progress views. The measure of his success is the extent to which he can gull whites who should know better.
Mr. Bush, lacking Ronald Reagan's Hollywood luster or the Teflon protecting his presidency, nevertheless outshone Michael Dukakis in appealing to blacks and women in 1988. He said the right things and later invited civil rights leaders to his White House. That made Mr. Bush look like a man who meant to do right to the white moderates who disliked Mr. Reagan's stubborn anti-civil-rights campaign, but it didn't cost him anything.
Now, the disguise is dropped.
Watching his support in opinion polls dwindle, Mr. Bush chose to dazzle the Republican right and the ''Reagan Democrats'' -- intolerant Southern whites and quiet-but-biased Northerners -- with a ''nay'' that made him the third U.S. president to veto a civil rights act. Listen closely to the feeble claim that it was a ''quota bill,'' and you'll hear the footsteps of a man marching cynically out of step with history.
Twenty-six years of equal opportunity law have not brought in the quotas George Wallace said would flow from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1990 bill, written to restore a balance disturbed by six bad Supreme Court decisions, could not have brought such quotas if its backers wanted them. Twice, after the House of Representatives and the Senate had passed tougher bills, the White House convinced conference committees to water down its provisions.
Even those 30 amendments were not enough. At the eleventh hour, having lost the argument in the public forum, Mr. Bush sought to push his points through the back door.
A Leadership Conference analysis of Mr. Bush's '' compromise'' proposals notes that it would endorse and codify three decisions -- Wards Cove v. Antonio, Lorance v. AT&T Technologies and Martin v. Wilks -- to allow employers who have discriminated to set their own standards for judging.
The Supreme Court's ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. had held that, ''Congress directed the thrust of the [Civil Rights] Act to the consequences of employment practices, not simply the motivation.'' Thus, employers defending challenged hiring and promotion standards had to prove they bore a ''significant relationship to successful performance on the job.''
Mr. Bush would substitute a ''relationship to a significant business objective of the employer,'' a la Wards Cove. He would specifically enfranchise attacks on equal opportunity settlements years after discrimination had been proven, a la Wilks. And he would enshrine in law the restrictions Lorance put on the time workers have to complain about discrimination.
That's going backward to endorse the mores of the 1950s. It might please Mr. Bush's supporters in the Fortune 500 executive suites and reassure other whites threatened by minority progress, but look again at what is happening:
The U.S. labor force will grow only 1.2 percent a year during the 1990s -- more than twice as slow as during the 1970s. Eighty percent of that growth will come from immigrants, minorities and women. Only 45 percent of the U.S. labor force will be white males.
Don't expect newly opened European borders to supply the needed people. Not only are Eastern Europe's education levels a whole lot lower than many Westerners expected, but Europe's labor force is shrinking. With vast new opportunities opening up at home, Europeans will have little incentive to come, despite newly eased U.S. immigration. Japan's labor market will also tighten, probably spurring new investments in the Philippines, Korea and Southeast Asia. That will keep Asians home, too.
Instead of closing doors to minority opportunity, this country must open new ones. Recalcitrance is to be expected, if for no other reason than that Americans always disbelieve in change until it overtakes them. That's why the government, led by a president who knows what he is doing, must prod the stragglers along. The good of the country won't be served by anything less.