Right move on Lee 'Acting' civil rights chief: Clinton frustrates conservatives who oppose affirmative action.

December 18, 1997

THE ARGUMENT against naming Bill Lann Lee to run the Justice Department's civil rights division never held water. Conservatives opposed Mr. Lee because his affirmative action views mirror those of the president who nominated him. President Clinton has the right to choose a nominee who thinks as he does. Every president has that right.

Lacking a judicious reason to do otherwise, the Republican-majority Senate should have confirmed Mr. Lee, but the nomination never got out of committee. Mr. Clinton could have taken the bold step of appointing Mr. Lee on an interim basis during Congress' holiday recess. He instead chose the wiser course Monday of naming Mr. Lee "acting" assistant attorney general for civil rights. Mr. Lee may serve in that capacity until Mr. Clinton leaves office, but the president says he will renominate Mr. Lee for the permanent position in the new year.

The Clinton end run has further angered Republicans, who contend Mr. Lee has been placed in a post where he may circumvent recent Supreme Court rulings on racial preferences and stymie anti-affirmative action measures, such as California's Proposition 209, that were approved by voters. Mr. Lee has done all that anyone could do to reassure his critics, again pledging Monday to put the law before any of his personal beliefs. No nominee will be a blank slate upon which the Senate can write down what that person must exactly think.

Republicans haven't gotten over the way liberal Democrats tried to block the appointments of conservatives William Bradford Reynolds and Bill Lucas to the same civil rights post in the Reagan/Bush years. Mr. Reynolds was eventually confirmed, Mr. Lucas was not. But conservatives' persistence against Mr. Lee has itself taken on racial undertones, as Asian Americans celebrate his becoming the highest-ranking member of that minority group in the Clinton administration. Mr. Lee has been given an opportunity to show he can do the job right. His critics need to give him that chance.

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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