WASHINGTON. — Washington -- At least for a day, Bill Bradley shifted the argument over Clarence Thomas' civil-rights record to the record of the man who picked Mr. Thomas for the Supreme Court. That's a legitimate and inadequately explored line of inquiry, which is why it upsets George Bush so.
Senator Bradley took the floor to read an ''open letter'' to the president, asserting that ''America yearns for straight talk about race, but instead we get code words and a grasping after an early advantage in the 1992 election.'' But Mr. Bush took away the headlines when he sort of responded the same day, so the public never read most of what the senator said.
Mr. Bradley asked the president to ''tell us how you have worked through the issue of race in your own life,'' and explain a record that dates back to opposing the landmark civil-rights bill of 1964.
At the White House, the president expressed concern that others doubted his commitment, ''because I know what's in my heart, I know what my record is, I know what I feel, and I know what I think is right. . . . Hey, listen, we've got a good record on civil rights, and we're going to continue it.''
That is just what he has said many times before, and it explains nothing.
He made no effort to explain why he had asserted as a Senate candidate in 1964 that the bill ending segregation in restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations ''violates the constitutional rights of all our people.'' That's precisely what Jesse Helms was saying at the same time. Mr. Bush did not answer Mr. Bradley's questions on whether he had ever regretted that position, or changed his mind.
The senator asked the president to square his claims of a good record with refusal to compromise on the civil-rights bill now being considered, with the use of race-baiting Willie Horton commercials in the 1988 campaign, and with his silent acceptance of regressive policies when he was vice president ++ under Ronald Reagan. Without mentioning the late Lee Atwater, chosen by Mr. Bush to be GOP national chairman, he noted the president's collusion with ''elements of the Republican Party whose southern strategy was to attract voters who wanted to turn back the clock on race relations.''
''We measure our leader by what he says and by what he does,'' Mr. Bradley said. ''If he says . . . things that are mutually contradictory, then we conclude he's trying to pull the wool over someone's eyes.
''Mr. President, you need to be clearer, so that people on all sides understand where you are, what you believe and how you propose to make your beliefs a reality. Until then, you must understand that an increasing number of Americans will assume your convictions about race and discrimination are no deeper than a water spider's footprints.''
Among other things, Mr. Bush said the Bradley speech was ''part of the liberal litany,'' which is just what Lee Atwater would have said.
Mr. Bradley called his speech ''a cry from the heart, so don't charge me with playing politics.'' It is not necessary to swallow his disclaimer to endorse his plea for the president to ''take the issue of race out of partisan politics and put it on a moral plane where healing can take place. . . . Tell us, Mr. President, lead us, put yourself on the line.''
The president says he knows what's in his heart, but he has never told the nation. The extent of his self-disclosure has been to say he has a good record. He bristles whenever pressed to go beyond that.
It is not partisan politics to ask the president of all the people to reveal himself on the most fundamental issues of our democracy, or to ask his Supreme Court nominee where he stands on those issues. Nothing in the Constitution suggests that we must be satisfied with smooth assurances from presidents or justices.
Doug Wilder, for example, has apologized for saying that because Clarence Thomas was brought up in the Catholic church, he should be questioned closely about his stand on abortion.
Governor Wilder did not suggest that Judge Thomas should undergo a religious test for office, which is forbidden by the Constitution. He urged questioning on a valid public issue, to which he might have added school prayer and government funding of religious education, whatever the church.
Mr. Wilder's suggestion does not make him a religious bigot, any more than the conflict between Mr. Bush's words and actions makes him a racist. The epithet of racism is flung about much too freely, when it should be reserved for malicious and consistent offenders. By that standard, Mr. Bush is no racist.
Try opportunist instead.