Amid all that diversity, is there room for mediocrity?

Russell Baker

February 23, 1993|By Russell Baker

EVERYBODY talks about diversity, but what do we know about it except that it's good?

That's why President Clinton wants a government made up of people as diverse as America. A government as diverse as all America would be good: so runs the season's wisdom.

Yet how many know that one of the early advocates of diversity in government was mocked and ridiculed, especially by progressive people, for speaking out in favor of this principle now so widely admired, especially by progressive people?

I refer to Sen. Roman L. Hruska, a Nebraska Republican during the Nixon administration. When President Nixon nominated Judge G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court, liberal Democrats objected that, among other things, Carswell was too "mediocre" to deserve a seat on the highest court.

Hruska titillated all humanity by asking why mediocrity should be a disqualification for high government position.

In a nation that cherished "the average man" -- another way of saying "human mediocrity" -- mediocre people were entitled to have one of their own on the court, he argued.

Poor Roman. The hoots and jeers of all good people -- as good people were defined in that blighted America of a generation ago -- were deafening. Such is the fate of all who are right too soon. (Carswell's nomination, incidentally, was defeated, and the Supreme Court seat finally went to Harry Blackmun.)

Why doesn't President Clinton try to enrich the diversity of his government by choosing a few mediocre people for high office? It's hard to say. He may assume that many among the diverse variety he has appointed will, without much fuss, just naturally contribute mediocrity galore.

That's what usually happens among most presidents' appointees, so maybe Mr. Clinton thinks, "Why waste energy making a house-to-house search for appointees mediocre enough to be role models for every C student between Hawaii and West Musquash, Maine?"

Still, by making no showoff effort to install a single mediocrity in his official family,the president leaves himself open to the suspicion that he still clings to the discredited belief in "excellence."

The worship of "excellence" began even before Hruska was humiliated for urging diversity in government. It was an idea sold by Adm. Hyman Rickover after Soviet science put a satellite in Earth orbit ahead of the United States. Rickover, famous for promoting the nuclear submarine, poured it on American education for graduating a lot of ninnies and goaded everyone to pursue "excellence." That's why it's been practically impossible ever since to survive the day without hearing somebody talk about "excellence."

In the three decades since Rickover quite sensibly urged our educators to march under the banner of "Excellence!" public education has . . . .

Well, never mind that, we're not talking calamity today, just diversity. About education, simply note that it reached its present condition while being inspired by three decades of public oratory about the nation's solemn devotion to "excellence."

Had Mr. Clinton made a conscious effort to include mediocrity in his diverse government, civilized people would surely sleep a little better.

It might have been a signal that somebody in power finally recognized that we were deceiving ourselves all those years by paying lip service to "excellence" while the kids were buying pistols for the schoolroom.

"Diversity," alas, has the faintly false ring of another fashionable cant word. Can it be just another, more up-to-date way of saying "excellence"?

"Diversity" -- the word invites us to suppose that by searching the full American spectrum for government talent, the president has picked from a richer pool than his predecessors.

In short, that there will be more "excellence" than ever.

Here in the ruins of several institutions that once worked at least passably well, maybe we are justified in wondering if Rickover wasn't wrong from the outset about excellence. Excellence can be brutally hard to achieve for all but the blessed few. Maybe it wasn't excellence the country needed. Maybe it was just competence.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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