Almost lost in the furor over the suitability of Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, the White House's rejection of the ''Danforth compromise'' on civil rights received limited attention.
A new Labor Department study of corporate ''pipelines'' to success, however, shows the danger of failure to pay attention to the bottom line. In a year-long look at the promotion and compensation practices of nine Fortune 500 companies, the Labor Department found that the ''glass ceiling'' blocking the way for women and minorities is pretty thick. That such a study would come out at all under a federal administration run by the third president in history to veto a civil-rights bill is surprising.
George Bush blasted last year's bill as a ''quota bill,'' providing affirmative-action opponents with an easy label to paste over serious efforts to redress the discrimination his own Labor secretary has found to be rampant. The sad thing about that was that Mr. Bush had already crippled the bill with 30 separate amendments negotiated on his behalf by White House and Justice Department staffers demanding that his objections be satisfied.
Mr. Bush's use of ''quota'' complaints where none could reasonably be sustained, last year and again this year, caused even conservative commentators to accuse him of demagogy.
The ugly racial imagery of the ''Willie Horton'' strategy sufficed to give Mr. Bush the win in 1988, but Mr. Bush seems only now to be learning that it was a tar baby whose enduring clasp will stick with his White House forever.
Plainly, Mr. Bush has lessons yet to learn. His Labor secretary, Lynn Martin, has served up a cogent one in the ''glass ceiling'' study. It says officially what is obvious to the many minorities struggling to emulate Clarence Thomas' up-by-the-bootstraps climb without many of the affirmative action advantages which sped Judge Thomas on his way.
Another survey, covering 94 companies over the last three years, found that 6.6 percent of top managers were women. That's not so much after 20 years of struggle over better access for women to the American work place, but then again, minorities accounted for a paltry 2.6 percent of the top jobs.
Ms. Martin's analysis pointed out many ''barriers'' holding back executive suite candidates who were not white males. Among the barriers -- she couldn't go so far as to say ''discrimination,'' but the rest of us cannot ignore the facts -- was a failure of top officers to make equal opportunity a priority when beginning the search for managerial talent.
Another problem was the tendency of top managers to choose someone like themselves, i.e., white and male, to groom for succession. Still another was the informal, undocumented way executives are hired, allowing plenty of room for subjective judgments to dominate considerations.
Finally, most damaging to women and minorities, performance evaluations are skewed. Objective qualifications are de-emphasized, actual work activity is judged by a harder standard than for white males. If that isn't enough to hold someone back, what will?
Minorities struggling to make their way in ranks far lower than the executive heights could have told the Labor secretary that such barriers have been holding them back for years. In fact, many have told the Labor Department, the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about such discriminatory barriers for years.
That's why there is an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by the way, even if former Chairman Thomas didn't believe in class-action remedies.
It was another Republican Labor Department official, former Assistant Secretary Arthur Fletcher, who designed the first modern class-action remedies in the first place, during President Nixon's first term. Mr. Fletcher, now Mr. Bush's Civil Rights Commission chairman, has quietly pushed for a new administration stance on civil rights, but that is another story.
Mr. Bush, who as a candidate for the Senate fought the Civil Rights Act of 1964, now finds himself in opposition to corrective action his own Labor Department has proven to be necessary. His rejection of Missouri Sen. John Danforth's good-faith effort to mediate between the much-maligned ''liberals'' pushing for change and a White House clearly resolved to face backward may haunt him as doggedly as Willie Horton.
For it is just as clear that a majority of the members of Congress is deeply troubled by the wrongheaded assault the Rehnquist Supreme Court has launched on equal-opportunity law. Mr. Bush insists on packing the court with ideological warriors like Clarence Thomas, but, as the court itself is fond of pointing out, it is Congress which writes the laws.
Thus, it is only fair for Congress to make sure its carefully weighed policy decisions are not subverted by justices constitutionally blind to the glass ''barriers'' everyone else can see.