WHEN George Bush launched his heavy ammo against the buzzword "quotas" in the civil rights bill, clearly he struck the rawest political nerve since the Willie Horton ads of 1988.
Each time Bush angrily lambasted the Q-word in a speech, he dredged up Americans' hidden fears about race and reverse discrimination.
Republican media gurus are already dreaming up 30-second ads they'll feature in the 1992 Bush/Quayle campaign.
But Bush is discovering that politicians who play with race are as dangerous as Third World crackpots toying with nuclear bombs. You never know when the device will blow up your friends.
Bush's jiving around with quota dynamite has smashed cracks in the smooth facade of Washington's most admired institution, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Now, thanks partly to Bush's quota demagoguery, white FBI agents' discontent with the hiring and promotions of blacks, women and Hispanic agents has exploded into a public furor.
And while quotas may be Bush's political winner, he's detonated a hand grenade under his FBI director, a cool-mannered ex-federal judge, William Sessions.
When Sessions took over the FBI 3 1/2 years ago, the agency was like the Washington Monument -- huge, venerated and almost all-white. It wasn't always practical to work undercover when every FBI agent was a short-haired white guy in wingtips.
Sessions aggressively sought minorities to wipe out a legacy of discrimination from Hoover's era. It worked, sort of -- 90 percent of the FBI's 10,000 agents are white males, 480 are black, 560 Hispanic and more than 1,000 women.
Then on May 30, Bush made a quota-bashing speech to the class of of FBI special agents at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va. He blasted the civil-rights crowd in Congress for spreading racial wildfire.
"They want to pass a bill that would lead employers to adopt racial quotas and hiring practices," harangued Bush. "Well, frankly this is hardly the road to racial harmony. It's the road to lawsuits and discord."
Bush's anti-quota fusillade hit a bull's-eye with white FBI agents who were privately seething at Sessions' "rainbow" hiring practices.
The local newsletter of the FBI Agents Association wrote, "President Bush and his administration may be the most important opponents of the bureau's hiring preferences and 'goals.'"
L Translation: Racial resentment has a pal in the Oval Office.
Here's the irony of the Pandora's Box that Bush has opened -- the quotas and "race-norming" he rages against for private employees are accepted practice in the FBI and perhaps other federal outposts.
Thus, blacks, other minorities and women pass the FBI hiring tests when they score 31.4 out of a possible 45; white male recruits must score at least 34 points. Sessions is proud of the FBI's "diversity." But one agent says flatly, "It's a quota system that runs counter to everything Bush has been saying."
In truth, FBI agents of both races aren't so much irked by the hiring gimmicks as by the "old boy network" that promotes favorites. A survey of 3,000 FBI agents found 69 percent didn't think "the bureau promotes the best people."
Agents call it "The Hook" -- a superior hooking a buddy up the career ladder. "The hook is alive and well at the FBI," groused one agent. That's the real source of white FBI agents' revolt -- fear that Sessions will build in promotions of blacks and women.
Sessions -- everybody calls him "The Judge" -- is in a tight jam: Caught between a white agents' rebellion and a potential class-action suit by black agents if he doesn't shake up the promotion system.
And his boss in the White House has helped stir the FBI's white-black dilemma into a public storm.
But in a way, the FBI's racial quandary is a paradigm of the quota argument. Sure, in the best of possible worlds, agents would be hired and promoted on color-blind merit alone. But in the real world, is it worthwhile to give some women, blacks and Hispanics a boost so that the FBI will be as diverse as the American public it represents?
That's a complex question you won't hear discussed in any 30-second TV blunderbuss.
Sandy Grady is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.