WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Of all America's politicians, only President Clinton could give a speech about the most explosive issue in the land and produce these headlines:
''Clinton Deplores Reverse Discrimination''
''Clinton Defends Affirmative Action''
''Bill: Don't Quota me about the future of affirmative action''
''President May Appoint Panel To Study Preference Programs''
Bill Clinton spent the weekend in California, the incubator of the worst rotten-egg initiatives of this generation, and proved anew that on the issues that truly imperil America he is unmatched as a double-talker.
He gave an appalling example of non-leadership by talking about affirmative action out of both sides of his mouth, further inflaming opinions on the issue, and then retreating behind talk of a ''bipartisan commission.''
The president arrived in ''must-win'' California to find 1,821 delegates to the state Democratic convention screaming ''No Retreat!'' from affirmative-action programs that have lifted the level of life of millions of women, and some blacks and Hispanics. He said tepidly that ''we don't have to retreat from these programs.''
But in the next breath Mr. Clinton was saying that ''This is a psychologically difficult time for a lot of white males, the so-called angry white males. . . . There are a lot of people who go home every night and look across the table at their families and think that either they have been failed or they have been stuck by somebody treating them unfairly. That is what we must respond to.''
Talking was a president incredibly insensitive to the fact that this is a psychologically -- and economically -- difficult time for a lot of white females and for a majority of black and brown males, all of them acutely aware that for all their lives someone has been treating them unfairly.
This president, in early political desperation, bought into the psychology of mob paranoia when he chose to toss around that inflammatory phrase ''angry white males.'' There are not as many as he fears, and of those who do exist, almost none will vote for the re-election of Bill Clinton, no matter how much he panders to them. So a stance of conscience ought to be easy.
It is dismaying to see the president and Vice President Al Gore taking the cowardly dodge of declaring repeatedly how much they are against ''quotas'' and ''reverse discrimination.''
The media are terrible enough in their constant use of loaded words such as ''unfair preferences.'' It is extremely destructive to have the president and vice president setting up scarecrows and trying to knock them down.
This nation would be better off racially, socially and economically, and this president would be better off politically, if he acknowledged that the affirmative action those California Democrats want to protect simply involves honest efforts by decent people to allow all Americans to earn a piece of the pie.
Mr. Clinton should not need a committee to tell him whether he supports that.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.