WASHINGTON — IT IS ALTOGETHER appropriate that the grandstanding by the civil-rights lobby and the cravenness of the White House regarding racially exclusive scholarships began in connection with big-time college football, an entertainment industry based in no small measure on exploitating -- using up and discarding -- young black men.
The Fiesta Bowl occurs in Tempe, next door to Phoenix. Both cities have Martin Luther King Jr., holidays, but Arizonans recently voted against a state holiday. Bowl officials, as penance for the sin of playing there, pledged $100,000 to both competing schools for scholarships exclusively for minorities. This is a perverse homage to King, whose dream was an America where people ''would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.''
Enter Michael Williams. He is 37, black, the enforcer of civil-rights laws for the Department of Education, and George Bush's nightmare -- a man who thinks little about politics and thinks -- thought -- Mr. Bush means what he says.
Mr. Williams notified Bowl officials that race-exclusive scholarships are illegally discriminatory. Naturally, the civil-rights lobbies went ballistic. Interestingly, liberal Democrats did not. There is no rush to defend racially exclusive entitlements, for the country really does honor King, really does aspire to color blindness.
But the Bush administration is staffed by Beltway solipsists: Nothing beyond the Beltway exists. Furthermore, the administration is marked by a constitutional flippancy. (By endorsing term limits the president has brought to five the number of constitutional amendments he has at one time or another endorsed.) And the administration believes that in domestic policy nothing, except a capital-gains tax cut, is fundamentally important.
The White House response to Mr. Williams' honest law enforcement was panic, retreat and this ruling: Schools can award racially exclusive scholarships that are funded privately.
In retreating, the president committed three affronts to the rule of the law.
He ignored a law, the 1964 Civil Rights Act's Title VI and regulations. He revised a law, the 1987 Civil Rights Restoration (''Grove City'') Act which stipulates that all parts of a university are subject to civil-rights laws if any part receives federal funds. And he ignored the Constitution, notably the guarantee of ''equal protection.'' His position is that the Constitution is not for him to .. interpret. (Bear that in mind when next he interprets the war-powers clause.)
Mr. Williams, an honest man sent out to announce the administration's intellectual corruption, said, truthfully, that he had been correct about the law but had been politically naive. Therefore, he said, the law shall be ''enforced'' differently (not construed differently: The truth is the truth, but shall be irrelevant), to suit White House dictates. Liberals rejoiced at this triumph of expediency over legality.
Mr. Bush has been deprived by events and his own actions of the three core Republican issues -- anti-communism, balanced budgets, opposition to tax increases. Until last week, he had a fourth: opposition to race-based actions. Now that, too, has been fumbled away.
It beggars belief, but it's true: Some Bush aides say his retreat regarding race-exclusive scholarships builds moral capital for when he opposes the 1991 version of the 1990 Civil Rights bill. In October, Mr. Bush vetoed the 1990 bill because it was, he rightly said, a ''quota'' bill. Democrats should send him a duplicate of the 1990 bill and invite him to square his October principles with those of December.
Two important values collide in this controversy: the quest for color blindness and the goal of expanding the black middle class by improving access to the professions. But conservatives believe color blindness is not just one among many competing values, it is a constitutional imperative. And race-exclusive scholarships are not necessary for expanding black enrollments. Scholarships targeted to financially needy and culturally disadvantaged young people will go disproportionately to minorities.
The civil-rights lobby, to which President Bush has surrendered, understands this. But that lobby also understands that the legal thread that Mr. Williams tugged would, if pulled seriously, unravel the entire racial-spoils system, the expansion of which is the sole remaining rationale for today's civil-rights lobby.
Thus the lobby furiously opposes policies that recognize this fact: The successes of the civil-rights movement a generation ago transformed the problems of blacks from caste problems to class problems. Mental inertia and institutional self-interest cause many black leaders to cling to the politics of caste.
Michael Williams gave the nation, and especially conservatives, a tantalizing glimpse of what a Republican administration would be in the 1990s if it were headed by a conservative. This episode revealed, redundantly, the nature of this donut administration: There is fine material in the outer circles, but a hole at the center.