There's an old story of the country politician who always wound up his campaign speech with the ringing summation: "These are my most cherished convictions, and if you don't like 'em -- well, I'll change 'em."
That exercise in candor must have been the model for the truly bizarre press conference held yesterday by Michael L. Williams, the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights.
Williams is the man who ignited what he now concedes to be "a firestorm" last week with his ruling -- a wholly gratuitous ruling which no one had asked for -- that college scholarships designated exclusively for minority students were illegal. Under pressure from President Bush himself, Williams has now changed his opinion -- well, sort of, you might say.
In executing this change, Williams said that he had been "legally correct" but "politically naive" in his initial ruling.
He certainly got the second part right. Anyone who would make such a statement won't get any quarrel about his naivete, because he was saying in essence, "I did what was right, but what's right is not politically acceptable, so I'm changing it and will do what I know to be wrong."
But if Williams is confused, then it must be said that he takes his cue from the confusion that abounds at the top. Drawn inevitably into the uproar over the Williams ruling, President Bush declared firmly yesterday: "I am for affirmative action."
Well, now, that's interesting. We didn't hear Bush say that when he was running for president in 1988. And we certainly didn't hear him say that when he was campaigning for Jesse Helms who was running an openly racist campaign in North Carolina this year. And we didn't hear him say it when he vetoed an affirmative action civil rights bill two months ago as a "quota bill."
So in the final analysis the confusion is not the product of a ruling by an obscure back-bench bureaucrat in Washington; it is the inevitable product of an administration which wants to have it both ways -- which wants to be perceived as being fair and supportive of minorities, yet which wants to exploit fear of those same minorities as a cynical political strategy.
Little wonder, then, that when the dust had settled yesterday after a frenzied effort at damage control by both Bush and Williams, the confusion was greater than ever.
It's going to continue until the president states, in terms that ordinary people can understand, not only that he is "for affirmative action," but what the term means to him. How can he expect ordinary people to know what he means when his own minions in government don't know?