Bush plays the Reagan card


IF GEORGE BUSH looked out a White House window Monday, he might have spotted activist Dick Gregory carrying a sign:

"Dear Mr. President, before you veto the Civil Rights Bill, please think about the number of black African-Americans you have sent to the Persian Gulf willing to die for someone else's human rights."

Why should Bush pay attention to Dick Gregory, a washed-up comedian who became a public scold?

Why should Bush listen to Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.? Kennedy, who warned, "when the chips are down, this White House doesn't believe in civil rights," has as much clout with Bush as Saddam Hussein.

Well, maybe Bush would listen to his own U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Or the American Bar Association. Or the AFL-CIO. Or the National Association of State Attorneys General. Or women's groups.

Those aren't radical rabble-rousers. They urged Bush to sign a weak civil rights bill that combats race and sex discrimination in the workplace -- hardly a flaming manifesto.

At least you'd think Bush would listen to his own senators, including Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. They watered down the language until it said, "This bill does not affirm job quotas." When they left the White House, they thought they had a presidential deal.

No chance.

"I deeply regret having to take this action . . .," said Bush.

With those silky words, he became the third president in U.S. history -- Andrew Johnson and Ronald Reagan the others -- to veto a civil rights bill.

Nobody celebrated, unless it was Louisiana ex-Klansman David Duke. Never mind that the Senate (by 62-34) and House (by 273-154) passed the civil rights bill. Bush's veto was bulletproof.

Once again Bush hemmed and hawed over an emotional issue. This time he made a moral mistake.

Who had Bush listened to? Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh and White House lawyer Boyden Gray smelled job quotas, that ancient Republican bugaboo, and signaled red light.

Above all, Bush listened to ghosts -- phantoms of Republican politicians since Richard Nixon who profitably pandered to race and class rumblings of white majorities.

In a cynical sense, Bush's veto is politically clever.

Sure, it damages efforts by Bush and Republican Chairman Lee Atwater, before his illness, to court black voters for 1992. That olive branch is as dead as a Confederate $10 bill.

But Bush opted to play the Reagan Card.

When he railed against the red herring of a "quota system," Bush played to fears of businessmen, Southern whites and Northern blue-collars. Reagan mastered that tune.

Why should Bush care about the rage of black politicians, who'd never be on his side anyway?

He can shrug off Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., saying, "We thought he was different from Reagan, but he isn't."

He can ignore Democratic Chairman Ron Brown's slashing rebuke, "Bush chose Willie Horton over Abraham Lincoln." Or civil rights activist Ralph Neas' prediction, "This will victimize Bush's presidency forever." Or NAACP director Benjamin Hooks calling the veto a "shocking disappointment."

Even Bush may wince at stinging words from Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., often-jailed black hero of the 1960s: "The president has given cover for the David Dukes and the Klan and taken us back 30 years."

But in politics, you dance with who brung you. None of those furious critics are on Bush's '92 dance card.

The excuse doesn't wash that Bush was too busy to Do the Right Thing. "I think he got too bogged down with legalities and the budget to focus on this," Sen. Specter alibied.

No, Bush winked slyly at white Republican bastions of the South and West, where "job quotas" are code words for giving blacks and women a free ride. He's echoing Reagan's song.

But Dick Gregory's sign is haunting.

When justice at home goes begging, how do you ask troops to fight for Kuwaiti oil kings?

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