WASHINGTON -- President Bush pledged yesterday to help heal a nation rubbed raw by the divisive Clarence Thomas hearings, even as he berated civil rights and women's groups who opposed his Supreme Court nominee.
Mr. Bush said he was "troubled" by the "graphic sex" discussed on the televised Senate committee hearings, concluding that the senators should have heard the sexual harassment allegations in a closed-door session.
The president added, however, that some good could emerge from airing Anita F. Hill's accusations against Justice-designate Thomas: an increased national sensitivity to the issue of sexual harassment.
"I think everybody should take it very, very seriously," Mr. Bush said in a question-and-answer session with the Associated Press Managing Editors Convention in Detroit by television hookup.
With opinion polls showing that more than half of women and blacks supported Judge Thomas after the hearings, Mr. Bush spoke with near-derision of "feminist groups" as being out of touch with women. Women's activists "on the television every day berating those that voted for Thomas" do not "speak for all the women in this country," he said.
Mr. Bush also took a swipe at the civil rights leadership, saying they did not represent most black Americans. "If they did, how come support for Judge Thomas would have been so strong among black Americans?" Mr. Bush asked.
Civil rights groups have been divided on the nomination, wanting to support a black nominee to the Supreme Court but opposing Judge Thomas' conservative views. Even before the sexual harassment allegation surfaced, the largest women's groups, anticipating that Judge Thomas would support an erosion of abortion rights, fought hard to defeat his nomination.
Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, took Mr. Bush's remarks as an acknowledgment that he "knows these [poll] numbers won't hold and needs to continue to undermine the effectiveness of our advocacy. He knows how angry we are."
Jim Williams, spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that despite black support for Judge Thomas in polls, his group and other civil rights organizations were "closer to the pulse of the black community than any other organization. We took our position based on principle, and we stand by that."
Even before Mr. Bush spoke, two Democratic presidential candidates, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, underscored the divisive debate in political circles, charging on NBC's "Today" show that Mr. Bush was cynically promoting racism and sexism for political gain.
Mr. Wilder, the first elected black governor in the United States, and Mr. Clinton, the longest-serving governor, concurred that Mr. Bush was intentionally promoting racism by threatening to veto a Democratic-backed civil rights bill. That bill is supported by virtually every black and women's group in the country.
"He is playing the race card to the hilt," Mr. Clinton said.
Mr. Bush cited his support for his own alternative civil rights bill as evidence of the administration's sensitivity to sexual harassment, saying that his bill was "the only one, I believe, that addresses further the question of sexual harassment in the workplace."
In fact, both Mr. Bush's bill and the Democrats' address the issue.
Meanwhile, with Judge Thomas' approval high according to current polls, the White House set today for a historic outdoor swearing-in ceremony with Mr. Bush on the South Lawn. A second oath-taking, required for the justice-designate to be officially installed on the court, is to come next week, delayed by the death yesterday of the wife of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.