WASHINGTON — Washington. -- How surprised I was to hear that the same hive of conservative legal thinkers who brought down the nomination of Lani Guinier to be President Clinton's civil-rights enforcement chief was gathering its swarm to sting her long-awaited successor, Deval L. Patrick.
Barring any embarrassing skeletons, Mr. Patrick would seem to be the perfect nominee, personally, professionally and politically.
Personally, he has an inspiring poverty-to-prominence success story. A 37-year-old product of one of Chicago's poorest South Side neighborhoods, he earned a scholarship to exclusive Milton Academy through ''A Better Chance,'' a program that sends bright, promising ghetto kids to exclusive Eastern prep schools.
Still, he found time while attending Harvard on scholarships to support himself and raise money for community programs in the Boston area. He later helped poor people in Africa on a Rockefeller Fellowship. At Harvard Law School, he served as president of the Legal Aid Bureau, providing free legal services to the needy.
For three years he worked on voting-rights and death-penalty cases for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the nation's oldest civil-rights litigation organization. In 1986 he joined the prestigious Boston law firm of Hill & Barlow, formerly home to the state's Republican Gov. William Weld and its former Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis. There he continued to work on civil-rights cases, many of them pro bono, and became the firm's only black partner in 1990.
Then there's the politics of his nomination. No, he has no nanny. Nor does he have a paper trail of the type that caused Mr. Clinton's knees to buckle under Ms. Guinier for her controversial legal writings regarding voting rights and election redistricting.
Yet, Clint Bolick, who spearheaded the movement to topple Ms. Guinier's nomination, calls Mr. Patrick a ''stealth Guinier . . . part of the same pro-quota chorus.''
How so? It appears that Mr. Bolick, unable to come up with any solid embarrassments in Mr. Patrick's background, is resorting to Rush Limbaugh logic: Name-calling and innuendo, attacking through the Legal Defense Fund the way George Bush attacked Michael Dukakis through the American Civil Liberties Union.
Mr. Bolick argues a form of guilt by association, blasting Mr. Patrick's former employer, the LDF, for favoring ''group entitlements,'' in Mr. Bolick's view, over ''individual initiative and accomplishments.''
Those words have a familiar ring. They are the same words used by Southern politicians to fight the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Most Americans support those laws, but probably think incorrectly that the nation's great debate over race ended in 1965, when it only changed form. Today, at a time when a recent Business Week cover spotlighted white males frightened by what they see as a looming specter of affirmative-action quotas, I think Mr. Bolick sees an opportunity to divide the country with polarization politics that pit whites and men against women and minorities as potential victims of a quota-crazy Clinton administration.
I don't expect Mr. Patrick to cooperate in his own undoing. Unlike Ms. Guinier, who enjoyed intellectual excursions out to the cutting edges of civil-rights law, Mr. Patrick has long held a reputation as a consensus builder.
It is a quality one friend, Chicago lawyer Tina Tchen, recalls the most from their days as co-chairs of the same undergraduate dormitory at Harvard. ''Let's face it,'' she quipped, ''when you have a black man and a Chinese woman running an undergraduate house at Harvard, you'd better be a good consensus builder.''
Just so. Consensus building is a quality ideally suited to the administration of a president who, so far, has shrewdly dodged the dangerous shores of our nation's polarized civil-rights debate, even when it meant robbing Ms. Guinier of the chance President Reagan gave Robert Bork and President Bush gave Clarence Thomas to defend her views before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Barring any so-far-undetected skeletons in his closet, Mr. Patrick probably will charm the Judiciary Committee so thoroughly that his ideological critics, not he, will sound like outside-the-mainstream renegades, which, in many ways, they are.
If Mr. Bolick and his buddies don't like the Legal Defense Fund's positions, they could lobby Congress to change the laws on which they are based, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But neither the House nor the Senate has any desire to reopen that debate.
Americans of all colors have reached a consensus of support for what they think those acts say, whether they have read them or not. Americans also have come to respect the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; its founder and director for 20 years, Thurgood Marshall; and its historic victories, including the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case that struck down ''separate-but-equal'' segregation policies.
Most Americans don't have time to study the intricate legalities of voting rights or any other complicated laws. Mainly they want to feel that a presidential administration is on their side. That's what consensus building is all about. We have seen precious little of it in Washington since the passage of the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. Perhaps it can be revived by a new Clinton civil-rights team headed by Deval L. Patrick, a poor kid from the ghetto who apparently hasn't forgotten where he came from.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.