A veto that won't wash . . .


PRESIDENT BUSH'S veto of the civil rights bill may well prove to be a mistake of disastrous proportions.

Without any supporting evidence, the president openly proclaimed the measure a "quota bill." But the drafters had bent over backward in crafting language that would be acceptable to the White House. They reportedly accepted seven major changes in wording authored by the executive branch and thought they had an agreement; yet, in the last several days before the bill's passage, there were ominous rumblings about the possibility of a veto.

Then, on Oct. 20 or 21, an alternative acceptable to the president was floated in Congress. It had two major provisions that the original civil rights bill's sponsors found totally unacceptable. The first would have allowed employers not to hire or retain employees if the employer found them detrimental to "customer relations." The other provision would have disallowed the use of juries in discrimination cases. And the victim, even if he or she were able to prove intentional discrimination and prevail in court, would have been limited to regaining his or her job with back pay. Punitive damages, irrespective of the merits of the case, would have been outlawed.

Inevitably, the White House alternative was rejected as an exercise in insincerity, and the landmark civil rights bill was passed by large, but not veto-proof, majorities in both houses. At that point, the White House let it be known that the president would not accept the bill and intended, reluctantly (it was said), to veto it.

Many of the president's critics feel that the decision to veto had been made long before the bill's passage. The question then became one of finding the most effective way to discredit the legislation. Since few among the electorate would be familiar with the bill's actual provisions, the "quota" argument was seized upon. Racial quotas raise red flags, especially in the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

But consider the numbers. The right-wingers -- including the "Bubbas" and racists, the folks who brought us David Duke -- have nowhere else to go politically. No gain here for Bush. On the other hand, Bush, who had painstakingly built bridges to African-Americans, now has chucked it all away. Big loss here.

But it's even worse than that. Black leaders, having guardedly given Bush a measure of trust, are now seething with resentment. They are aware that a large proportion of the troops in the Middle East are black. In fact, just a few days ago, we witnessed the spectacle of comedian Dick Gregory picketing the White House with a sign reading: "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."

Surveys show that the American people continue to believe that our troops are in the Mideast to protect our supply of oil, despite Bush's attempts to raise the arguments to a loftier plane. Bush is asking U.S. soldiers to put their lives on the line to preserve a despotic monarchy in Saudi Arabia and to restore another monarchy in Kuwait. At the same time, he is sending a message to a large number of blacks that their country lacks the generosity to give them simple justice when they return home looking for jobs.

It won't wash.

Les Lear writes from Timonium.

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