When George Bush pledged to be a "kinder, gentler president," nobody thought to ask him, "Compared to what?"
I wish we had.
Right after Bush accepted the Republican nomination two years ago, he began combing out the white supremacists who had crawled, like hair lice, into ranking positions in the Republican Party during the Reagan administration.
Later, Bush, the president, attended a gospel service and was even seen tapping his foot, in time, more or less, with the music.
Otherwise, Bush has been neither kind nor gentle in the area of civil rights. He has been more like a rampaging bull.
In October, he vetoed an important civil rights bill on the fictitious grounds that it would have forced employers to adopt numerical quotas.
Now, his administration has launched an attack against another remedy against discrimination.
The U.S. Department of Education has announced that certain college scholarships designated exclusively for minority students is discriminatory and therefore illegal. Colleges that offered such scholarships, the department warned, could lose federal funding.
Assistant Secretary Michael L. Williams, who is black, assured reporters yesterday that the new policy is not an attempt to keep blacks and Hispanics from attending college.
The idea, said Williams with a straight face, is to make federal policy fair to all.
Indeed, the policy contains so many loopholes that it is unclear if it will have any impact at all on actual practices.
Colleges that have adopted special programs in response to specific histories of discrimination can continue to offer them, Williams said. Scholarships may still be offered to financially needy students. And Williams even indicated race may be considered a factor in awarding scholarships so long as it is not the sole or major factor.
But it is the pattern that terrifies. It is the pattern that makes reasonable folk mistrust the president's intentions.
Black enrollment at the nation's traditionally white colleges and institutions plummeted during the early 1980s, after the Reagan administration shifted the government away from grant scholarships that favored minorities and toward student loan programs that favored the middle class.
The numbers had only begun to climb again in recent years, in part, after colleges adopted precisely the type of programs the Bush administration now proposes to scuttle.
A few years ago, the Department of Education launched a crackdown on defaulted student loans that had its harshest effect on minority students and the institutions they attended.
And many of the reforms in lower education that the president and his associates have proposed, such as tax vouchers for private school students, would undercut the neediest students in the neediest public school districts.
Minority scholarship programs, like affirmative action plans, were created to combat past and continuing discrimination against minorities.
There is no doubt that every program ever conceived can be improved upon, made more effective, more fair. But without such particular efforts, we have found, our society tends to drift back into its prior state of two societies, separate and unequal.
For the past 10 years, the efforts of the Reagan-Bush administrations have not been to make programs dedicated to equality more effective. Reagan and Bush appear to want to eliminate them entirely.
They are a pair of 19th century gentlemen.
The tragedy of all of this is that this attack on progress comes amid heightened concern about the quality of tomorrow's workers.
Just three years ago, the U.S. Department of Labor released a study, "Workforce 2000", which predicted that minorities such as Asians, Hispanics, blacks and women would soon be the majority in the nation's work force.
Since then, the business community has slowly begun to realize that the country's status as a world leader would decline without a new commitment to education and training for all.
But here is the president, proposing to hamstring those efforts.
Bush, I now recall, promised to be the "education" president as well as a kinder and gentler one.
Apparently, we should have sought clarification on a lot of the things he said before we put him into office.