The U.S. Department of Education's announcement last week that it would cut off funds to colleges and universities that designated scholarships for minority students touched off a predictable controversy that already may have the administration backpedaling from its hardline position. The latest reports suggested that President Bush had been taken by surprise by the new policy and that it is now under White House review.
To put the controversy in its proper perspective, it's worth recalling that only a day before the scholarship flap broke, former Education Secretary William Bennett, in an interview with The Sun's Paul West, had tried to use the issue of minority scholarships to tone down his earlier opposition to affirmative action.
"What I said," Bennett told West, "is not that I'm opposed to affirmative action but I am opposed to counting by race. When we found out at the Department of Education that if a black high school student had a 'B' average, he had a better chance of going to college than a white student, we thought that was dynamite. Diversity is not a bad aim, in and of itself."
Bennett even conceded that "diversity could be, under certain circumstances, a defensible end."
Bennett obviously has a problem: He and the Republican Party can't have it both ways. They can't, in effect, claim that when Republicans say affirmative action it mean "fairness," but when Democrats use the term it means "quotas." Either "affirmative action" -- like the description "education president," by which George Bush says he wants to be remembered -- means the same thing for everyone, or it means nothing at all.
Bennett was right when he likened scholarship aid for black students to educational "dynamite." Unfortunately, only now do Republicans seem to be coming to a belated recognition that their cynical manipulation of the affirmative action question is akin to playing with political dynamite and that, if they aren't careful, the Republicans could become, instead of the party of Lincoln, the party of Jesse Helms and David Duke.