The sting of critics

November 17, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The invertebrate condition of some Republicans is suggested by a revision of Major Sullivan Ballou's letter.

When Ken Burns' Civil War series appeared on public television, viewers were stirred by Ballou's letter to his wife before Bull Run. Ballou, who died there, wrote of his readiness ''to burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood.'' This letter was included in a video shown in September at the convention of California Republicans. Except Ballou was rewritten to speak of his sons growing up to ''honorable adulthood.''

What kind of people falsify a historical document, tampering with a personal statement of unsurpassed poignancy, in order to conform to the clunky language of political correctness? The kind whose moral compass is their fear of criticism, however demagogic.

Kate O'Beirne of National Review says it is no wonder Republicans are pro-life, they spend so much time in the fetal position. Which brings us to the Republican stance -- if a cowering crouch qualifies as a stance -- regarding racial preferences.

In 1996, Californians, one-eighth of the nation, voted to proscribe racial and gender preferences by government. Defenders of preferences resorted to the ad hominem argument that opponents of preferences are racists.

Today Rep. Charles Canady, a Florida Republican, has a bill to ban preferences by the federal government. But the Judiciary Committee of the Republican-controlled House recently voted to table the bill -- four Republicans siding with the Democrats. Elements of the Republican leadership had urged caution, lest Republicans open themselves to the criticism that they are insensitive about minorities and women.

This occurred two days after the failure of a referendum to end preferences in Houston. Except Houston voters were not allowed to vote on the actual language that would have gone into the law. It would have said that the city ''shall not discriminate against, or grant preferences to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.'' Instead, the Democratic mayor caused the ballot language to be rewritten so that the referendum was on ending ''the use of affirmative action for women and minorities.''

Even rewritten as anti-affirmative action, the measure won 46 percent of the vote. Polling indicated 70 percent support when the measure was accurately presented as an anti-discrimination law repealing preferences.

'Racial preferences'

The pretense that proscribing ''racial preferences'' would end all the recruiting and other outreach programs encompassed by the phrase ''affirmative action'' was dishonest, but not as disreputable as an ad broadcast by Houston's defenders of preferences. It began with the voice of Martin Luther King saying ''I have a dream,'' then was punctuated by a gunshot. The ad went on to warn against ''forces of bigotry.'' Message: Opponents of preferences are not just racists, they are akin to murderers.

This style of argument -- stigmatizing the motives rather than refuting the arguments of opponents -- is common nowadays. When President Clinton campaigned in Virginia's gubernatorial race, he said the Republican candidate's proposal to eliminate the personal property tax on cars and trucks was ''selfish'' -- not just a bad idea, a manifestation of bad character. When Mr. Clinton said that if the vote on ''fast track'' for trade agreements were secret he would win ample Democratic votes, he was saying that Democrats opposed to ''fast track'' are not merely mistaken, they are craven and corrupt.

Most Virginia voters, and most House Democrats who voted on fast track, nevertheless persisted in their sinfulness. And Senate Republicans seem resistant to the argument from some Asian-American groups that opposition to Bill Lann Lee, Mr. Clinton's nominee to be assistant attorney general for civil rights, is evidence of bigotry against Asian-Americans.

However, regarding the principle that racial preferences should be repealed, the behavior of many Republicans is (if California Republicans will forgive the language) unmanly.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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