WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's decision to jump on the bandwagon to make English the nation's official language underscores the political mischievousness in this seemingly common-sense notion.
What could be harmful in requiring all Americans to learn and use the misidentified "native tongue" of their country? Dole's argument that "with all the divisive forces tearing at our country, we need the glue of language to hold us together" seems the soul of reason.
But the idea that the nation somehow lacks sufficient "glue" from other sources, including commitment to its loftiest ideals and its history of ethnic assimilation, smacks of a discouraging retrenchment from the old "melting pot" image of America.
As Dole -- who has been working overtime to court his party's most conservative elements -- was making his pitch for an official language, President Clinton in California made this point in another context.
Criticizing Gov. Pete Wilson's assault on affirmative action and illegal immigration, Clinton observed that "we should never, ever, ever permit ourselves to get into a position where we forget that almost everybody here came from somewhere else, and that America is a set of ideas and values and convictions that make us strong."
It would be naive not to recognize that Clinton, like Dole, had political motivations as well as the well-being of the republic in mind when making those comments. The president obviously hopes to solidify support from ethnic voters, who have had a strong allegiance to the Democratic Party in many major states, including California. And he must carry that state in 1996 to have a realistic shot at re-election.
But drawing the country into debate over immigration policy risks a nasty round of divisiveness. Perhaps the best recognition of that fact came in the reaction to Dole's remarks from competing presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, running unabashedly on a Fortress America platform. "Senator Dole is really violating the copyright laws," he said. "I came out for this in 1992, and I said then that all federal funding for bilingual education should be ended."
Buchanan for years has been a relentless foe not only of bilingual education but of a multicultural society. In his 1992 presidential campaign, he aggressively defended what he called the nation's heritage of Western European culture against dilutions of other cultures.
The reality in any debate about immigration today is that it takes on a distinctly racial and ethnic tinge, what with the bulk of illegal immigration coming from Mexico and Central America and to a lesser extent from Asia.
Although the arguments advanced by Wilson and others for more restrictive immigration are set in economic terms -- the threat to American workers and the skyrocketing costs to American taxpayers -- the poison of racial and ethnic prejudice inevitably is a byproduct.
Making immigration a centerpiece of the 1996 presidential campaign carries with it the danger of stirring up even more "the divisive forces tearing at our country," of which Dole warns.
The fear of real and imagined outside forces imperiling "the American way of life," makes pursuing the immigration issue irresistible, as the comments of Dole, Wilson and Buchanan demonstrate.
Contesting their views may offer little political gain for Clinton. But it may be time for a president to remind Americans where they, and the country, came from.
This is not to say that a legitimate argument cannot be made for promoting use of English as a tool for greater economic assimilation for newcomers to America. But diversity, which has greatly enriched the nation, does not have to produce "ethnic separatism," as Dole warns.
Nothing is more likely to generate such a result than a sense that "real" Americans are honing in on new immigrants to shape up and become like the rest of us. Instead of pushing for English-only in schools, this nation, which is deplorably weak in foreign-language skills, should be going the other way. But saying so isn't likely to win many votes these days.