WASHINGTON -- The White House didn't even try to get prime-time exposure on the big three television networks for President Clinton's speech on affirmative action.
It was understandable. ABC, NBC and CBS had granted only a few minutes for the president's budget message last month, and they made that concession only after much pleading from the White House.
So Clinton had to be satisfied with delivering his 49-minute speech to an audience at the National Archives and broadcasting live on Cable News Network at midday, then waiting to see if it was rebroadcast by C-SPAN and other cable outlets later. On the networks, viewers were given the usual sound bites -- Clinton defending affirmative action, some black leaders supporting him, Gov. Pete Wilson of California zapping him.
But affirmative action is just the kind of issue that cries out for careful examination by news organizations. It is already apparent that it will be a prime concern in the presidential campaign. And it is a complex question that cannot be dealt with accurately in two or three minutes.
Indeed, the most intriguing part of Clinton's speech was his rationale for his defense of the policy -- an exposition of why it had been needed, how it had evolved, how it had worked and why it is still required, albeit with some revisions.
Clinton advisers solace themselves with the thought that those voters most interested in the question will watch the speech somewhere or perhaps read the long excerpts published by some newspapers. But this is probably not the segment of the electorate that most needs exposure to the history of civil rights and the reasoning behind affirmative action.
On the contrary, one of the facts of political life today is that there has been a marked resurgence of racial resentment in the last decade, much of it coming from younger Americans with no firsthand memories of their own of the inequities in the system that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But if the president didn't get an adequate chance to make his case, the same can be said for the opposition. Wilson, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and several other Republican presidential candidates quickly weighed in with their objections to affirmative action but none had the opportunity to spell out the case against the policy.
There is no obvious remedy for the failure of the system to provide such an opportunity. As a practical matter, no one imagines it is feasible to force the television networks to provide time for such issues. And it is an article of faith in the news business these days that readers and viewers are turned off by politics under the best of circumstances.
It may be argued, moreover, that the presidential election is still 16 months away, so there is plenty of time for issues like affirmative action to be debated thoroughly. But the history of recent campaigns suggests that some issues never get a proper airing. And that, in turn, means they can be exploited by those -- on either side -- who are quick to oversimplify to make a point.
The argument over so-called "reverse discrimination" is a case in point. Anyone can sympathize with someone who doesn't get a job or a promotion because someone else gets special treatment. But there is little solid data on how often that really happens. So there is plenty of opportunity for sloganeering on both sides of the question.
By contrast, there are repeated cases of controversies on which the public changes its view with more detailed exposure to the facts. The classic example, of course, was the war in Vietnam a generation ago. Originally public opinion was strongly supportive President Lyndon B. Johnson's policy in pursuing the war. But over four or five years, the constant exposure of the failures of that policy gave weight to the protests against it and ultimately moved public opinion a full 180 degrees.
No one could reasonably argue that the controversy over affirmative action today is comparable to the great national debate over the Vietnam War. But it is an issue with a high emotional content and one with great potential for causing ugly divisions in the electorate along racial and class lines.
And it is an issue likely to be prominent in the decision on who captures the Republican presidential nomination and perhaps even who occupies the White House for the next four years. That would seem to make it worth an hour of that precious prime time.