GEORGE BUSH professes astonishment when people criticize his history on racial issues. His actual quote, uttered at a recent news conference, was: "Hey, listen, we got a good record on civil rights, and we're going to continue it."
That's the message he said he would deliver to black Americans "every chance I get." He said he would also tell blacks: "You ought to be rejoicing that we have a very able judge to be elevated to the Supreme Court."
Well, one reason blacks and others interested in civil rights aren't rejoicing over Bush's nomination of a black man, Clarence Thomas, to fill Thurgood Marshall's seat on the Supreme Court is that Thomas doesn't have a coherent philosophy on civil rights. For one thing, he seems to oppose the idea of using affirmative action to help counter the reality of past and present racial discrimination.
Thomas may have much to recommend him as a person of character, but his qualifications do not extend to being a distinguished jurist. He seems most devoted to being a Republican.
But George Bush's shoddy record on civil rights did not start with Clarence Thomas. You can go back nearly three decades -- to the time when Bush, then a candidate for the Senate from Texas, opposed the 1964 civil rights bill, saying it "violates the constitutional rights of all people."
Then, of course, leaping forward to Bush's 1988 presidential campaign, who can forget Willie Horton? Who can forget that crude appeal to white fears?
Bush is still trying to rewrite history about that piece of ugly campaigning. "The point on Willie Horton was not Willie Horton himself," he said recently. "The point was, do you believe in a furlough program that releases people from jail so they can go out and rape, pillage and plunder again?"
Horton is black and a convicted murderer. While on furlough from a prison in Massachusetts -- the state where Bush's opponent, Michael Dukakis, was governor -- Horton raped a white woman and stabbed her husband.
Bush and his campaign operatives exploited this issue at every turn. The racial motif was quite clear. It worked. It did what George wanted it to do; it pushed the fear button in white people. And many of them voted against Dukakis because of this.
In an interview before he died of an inoperable brain tumor earlier this year, Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager, apologized for the dirty tactics. But George has no apologies. He's too busy. Busy trying to defeat civil rights bills, busy cutting federal aid to cities (which is of course where minorities and the poor are concentrated), busy filling the Supreme Court with judges who oppose affirmative action, busy refusing to adjust the 1990 census even after he was shown a sizable under-count of minorities.
Bush performed the census distortion last week -- through Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher, who announced he had decided to ignore the 5 million Americans who hadn't been counted in the 1990 census. He acknowledged that most of the overlooked Americans were people of color, largely in cities, but said that never before had the nose-count method been adjusted later by a statistical formula drawn from a study of the omissions and errors found in the original count, and therefore "we cannot proceed on unstable ground in such an important matter of public policy."
Mosbacher was right about one thing -- it's an important matter. The count determines how federal aid gets distributed. It affects the distribution of congressional and state legislative seats. Since the uncounted 5 million are mostly from cities, they are mostly Democrats. The poker-faced secretary said his decision had nothing to do with politics. Uh-huh.
The Census Bureau's director, Barbara Bryant, is a professional demographer. She said the quality of the post-census survey was "excellent." She noted that censuses have always been flawed in the counting of blacks and other minorities and said: "For the first time in history, we have a tool for adjustment."
But Bryant failed to sway the White House. So now we have 5 million invisible Americans, most of them minorities. But not to worry. Just read George's lips: "Hey, listen, we got a good record on civil rights, and we're going to continue it."