President Bush's attack on the civil rights bill now being debated in Congress has degenerated into an ugly and demagogic spectacle. The president is using platforms which should be left out of politics altogether -- the U.S. Military Academy and an FBI graduation ceremony, two name two recent locations of Bush speeches on civil rights. Moreover, he is using racially loaded code words -- like "quotas" and "blocks" of voters.
Go back 27 years, to 1964, and you could hear speeches by George Wallace making the very same attacks on what is now XTC the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. Wallace, making his first foray into national politics that year, went around the country scornfully spouting ridiculous assertions such as "if that bill passes, every businessman in the country will have to hire just the right number of Chinese Baptists and Japanese Methodists to comply with the law's requirements for 'balance'." And Wallace never lost a chance to talk about "block votes," except that he was not so polite as Bush. Wallace said flatly, "the black block vote."
We now know the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a major policy in affording equal job opportunity not just to blacks but to women and other minorities as well. The conservatives who opposed it now speak warmly of the law; even George Wallace himself says he committed a "mistake" in opposing the bill.
But even if Wallace and the conservatives have changed, the baneful impact they exerted on American politics is alive and well. As a result of the Wallace challenge, Richard Nixon devised what is called "the Southern strategy" -- a calculated plan to win the South for GOP presidential candidates with a slightly watered-down version of Wallaceism. The Southern strategy has worked astonishingly well, especially under the regime of Ronald Reagan, and the depressing result today is that the president of the United States is going around the country making speeches that are all but indistinguishable in content and tone from George Wallace's speeches a quarter of a century ago.
Bush can rail against "blocks" and "quotas" all he chooses, but the plain truth is that the bill now pending before Congress does just one thing: It overrules a string of Supreme Court decisions which had the effect of distorting the meaning of what Congress intended in laws already on the books. Who, pray tell, is better to say what it meant in those laws than the lawmakers who enacted them?
When the final votes are counted on this issue we hope that all 10 members of Maryland's congressional delegation will be on the side of civil rights, not on the side of warmed-over Wallaceism, and that they will be prepared to vote to override President Bush's veto which is virtually certain to come.