WASHINGTON -- President Bush protested yesterday that charges that his administration is playing racial politics are "grossly unfair" but said he worries that if the accusations are repeated often enough, the perception may be impossible to shake.
"This kind of drop, drop, drop, drop of water on a rock could make a difference," Mr. Bush said at a news conference.
Referring to a chorus of mostly Democratic complaints about his failure to come to terms on a civil rights bill, his appointment of a conservative black to the Supreme Court, his lifting of the economic sanctions against South Africa and his use of a black escaped convict as campaign symbol in 1988, Mr. Bush insisted that his record was being distorted.
"I'm concerned about that because I know what's in my heart, I know what our record is, I know what I feel and I know what I think is right," he said.
"But if there's a pounding away from leaders that claim to speak for all the black community . . . it worries me."
At a meeting with reporters called to announce the lifting of congressionally imposed sanctions against the white-minority government of South Africa, Mr. Bush also said for the first time that he was willing to compromise with Congress on controversial regulations that ban abortion counseling at federally financed clinics.
The president refused to elaborate on what sort of changes he might accept, but he made clear that he would like to avoid a divisive veto fight over the regulations in which many of his fellow Republicans would probably vote against him.
Mr. Bush served formal notice on congressional leaders in early June that he would veto any attempt to overturn the regulations. But when the House mustered such a large vote against them two weeks ago that the president's ability to sustain a veto was put in doubt, he ordered his staff to review the issue.
Since then, Bush aides have been examining more closely the question of whether the regulations interfere with the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship and whether there is some compromise language that could resolve the problem without requiring the president to alter his basic opposition to federally financed abortions.
"If there's some room for compromise or some accommodation on a regulation without asking me to fundamentally change my convictions on this question, so be it," the president said.
Mr. Bush's remarks on the issue of race were in part a response to charges leveled on the Senate floor yesterday by Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., who contended that the president was trying to fuel racial fears for political advantage and seriously questioned Mr. Bush's claim to a lifelong concern for civil rights.
Mr. Bradley charged that Mr. Bush had "shamelessly" exploited racial divisions in 1988 by making an issue of Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who raped a Maryland woman while out on furlough from a Massachusetts prison under a rehabilitation program favored by Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis.
Now, Mr. Bradley contended, Mr. Bush has "begun to do the same thing again" by raising the specter of job quotas to explain his opposition
to the Democrats' civil rights bill at the same time he names a black candidate to replace the only black justice on the Supreme Court.
"This isn't a quota appointment," Mr. Bush said of his nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas, who is so conservative that many in the black community are in a quandary over whether to support him.
But the president did not deny that Judge Thomas' race was a factor in his selection.
"I feel more strongly than ever that it is the right thing at the right time," he said, borrowing the phrase employed by President Lyndon B. Johnson when he nominated Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom Judge Thomas would replace.