WASHINGTON -- Now that University of Pennsylvania President Sheldon Hackney has been given unanimous endorsement by the Senate committee considering his nomination to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, he appears to have clear sailing for confirmation -- amid complaints that he has unnecessarily been dragged over the coals.
Hackney is, after all, a highly regarded member of academia who on paper is eminently qualified for the job, which oversees a multimillion-dollar budget of federal grants to schools, libraries and scholars of all sorts. And it is true that this year's favorite sport on Capitol Hill seems at times to be shooting holes through TC presidential nominees, to the point that qualified individuals may be thinking twice about even considering accepting government posts requiring Senate confirmation.
But the basic issue raised in the controversy over Hackney's nomination was hardly a frivolous one. When black students irate over writings of a student columnist seized all 14,000 copies of the school's newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, Hackney responded with appalling ambivalence. He observed that "two important university values, diversity and open expression, seem to be in conflict."
That was like the two men who were arguing about whether the world was round or flat. A third person of conciliatory mien came along and when they asked him which of them was right, he replied: "Surely, the truth must lie somewhere in between."
Here was a clear case where the protesters violated the First Amendment right of a free press every bit as much as if they had gone in and trashed the printing press on which the newspaper was reproduced. It was certainly legitimate in the Senate confirmation hearings to explore Hackney's thinking on the matter, in which he defended his support of freedom of the press.
One of Hackney's sponsors, Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford, lauding the unanimous committee vote to recommend confirmation to the full Senate, said Hackney had effectively demonstrated in the hearings his "ability to reach common ground." But what was the common ground in the episode in which a basic constitutional right was trashed?
Hackney also straddled on the case in which a Penn student who called a group of noisy black women "water buffalo" -- a term of no known racial implication -- was hit with racial harassment charges, later dropped by the offended women. The free speech issue raised in this episode was less blatant than in the seizing of the campus newspapers, but Hackney seemed to punt on that one too.
Considering all the controversies over President Clinton's nominations and near-nominations this year, from Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood to Lani Guinier and Hackney, it is perhaps 'f inevitable that the process of confirmation itself is under fire. And it may be true that as a result of the investigations and interrogations to which these accomplished individuals have been subjected that government service will seem less attractive, or even not worth the candle, to many qualified Americans who are potential appointees to high-ranking jobs in the Clinton administration.
When the issue is ethics, such as in the Baird case in which the nominee was seeking confirmation for a job -- attorney general -- that would have given her responsibility for enforcing laws she herself had violated in employing a nanny, the advise-and-consent role of the Senate in confirmation is pretty clear-cut.
In Hackney's case, ethics wasn't an issue, but it was just as important to examine whether the man truly comprehended the imperative of defending the right to publish in this society -- including unpopular and even unfair views.
If there is one element that seems to run through most of the troubled Clinton nominations it is a failure of the White House to have its facts lined up on its own nominees and an effective defense ready to go behind them, when the nomination is made.
The confirmation process went forward for years without the sense that exists today that it is a form of public execution, and it can be so again if more care is taken in the selection process itself.