The administration plays poli tics with rights and lives

Jonathan A. Knee

October 16, 1991|By Jonathan A. Knee

THE RECENTLY revived charges that the Reagan campaign staff delayed the release of the hostages in Iran until after the 1980 election undoubtedly strike those generally skeptical of conspiracy theories as a bit far-fetched.

Yet this administration's desperate effort to delay the Senate from reaching a compromise on new civil rights legislation has made what once seemed outlandish accusations now appear strangely plausible.

The parallels between the two episodes provide important circumstantial evidence of the shocking willingness of Reagan/Bush political operatives to postpone resolution of crucial policy questions no matter how harmful delay may be to the nation.

When the Business Roundtable, representing 200 of the largest corporations in America, sat down with civil rights leaders to hammer out a compromise on proposed civil rights legislation earlier this year, a remarkable thing happened: The parties agreed on the supposedly intractable "quota" issue in no time at all.

The White House was horrified. The administration could not afford to lose its edge here, particularly in the face of mounting criticism of its meager domestic agenda. By successfully manipulating the quota issue, President Bush enjoyed higher public approval ratings for his civil rights stand than for any other domestic policy matter.

The White House acted quickly and decisively. Threatening calls were made. Companies afraid of losing government contracts or otherwise incurring the Wrath of Sununu ran for cover. Robert Allen, AT&T chairman, who headed the business delegation, praised civil rights leaders but complained that his company didn't "need the grief" it was getting from Washington. The potentially historic talks were halted. The quota issue would remain alive, at least until after the next election.

But the administration did not count on Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri. Danforth, who could not be successfully portrayed as a quota-monger, forced the White House to feign interest in negotiating a compromise. More frustrating to the administration, its favorite bogyman, Sen. Ted Kennedy, remained absolutely silent and gave Danforth virtual carte blanche to come up with a formulation acceptable to the White House.

Each time, however, the concessions offered by Danforth were not quite what the White House had in mind, and each time it lavishly praised Danforth for his hard work.

Then the White House dismissed Danforth's third effort to fashion a compromise -- this version based on language used in the Americans with Disabilities Act that the administration constantly touts as its own major domestic policy success. Danforth labeled the White House criticism of his proposed bill "ridiculous" and "incomprehensible."

The costs of the White House's brazen effort to keep the quota issue alive for November 1992 are substantial. On the one hand, it directs attention away from the many other important provisions of the legislation that could truly improve the lives of minorities and women in America. For instance, it would overturn the Supreme Court's decision in Patterson vs. McLean Credit Union that interpreted a law prohibiting racial discrimination in hiring as not protecting employees once they are on board.

One result of the Patterson decision has been that victims of on-the-job racial harassment have no effective remedy. On the other hand, the White House gives the public the mistaken and dangerous impression that quotas constitute the major discrimination issue facing America today. Quotas are wrong and illegal, but they are not widespread. The Justice Department has brought not a single "quota" case in the decade-plus since Ronald Reagan's election, while thousands of "non-quota" race and sex discrimination charges have been filed by individuals in the same period.

It may be said that the administration's willingness to play politics with race is a far cry from showing it would risk the lives of hostages for politics. The testimony of senior CIA analyst Charles E. Allen at the Gates confirmation hearings reminds us, however, that this was precisely what the Iran-contra scandal was all about. The Reagan-Bush administration was willing to risk hostages' lives by charging their Iranian captors five to six times the true price of shipped arms just so it could generate funds for its favorite political cause. This left the hostages to bear the brunt of the Iranians' ire.

This administration's shameless exploitation of the quota issue does not in any sense "prove" the truth of the charges regarding the 1980 Republican presidential campaign managers' involvement in delaying the release of the hostages.

It does show, however, that such actions would not have been beneath them.

Jonathan A. Knee is a Washington attorney.

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