LAST WEEK's speech on affirmative action was vintage Bill Clinton. After a five-month review of the issue, the president began his address 40 minutes late and then rambled for nearly an hour.
Yet after all that -- after 20 weeks of memo-circulating, marathon-meeting and all-night pizza-eating -- Mr. Clinton offered nothing new; he endorsed the race-conscious status quo, asserting that "affirmative action has been good for America." While Mr. Clinton tried to touch all the bases in his speech, including "the anxious middle class," he bearhugged his essential base: blacks and liberals. Revealingly, the first person to jump up and shake Mr. Clinton's hand after he spoke was Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Whatever happened to the new Dick Morris-ized Bill Clinton, who just a month ago was a born-again, budget-balancing moderate, chumming around with House Speaker Newt Gingrich? The answer is two words: Jesse Jackson. The threat of a Jackson candidacy pulling away bedrock black supporters was just too hazardous to Mr. Clinton's political health.
In fairness to the president, one might say that he also truly believes in Big Government as a friend to all. In his speech, Mr. Clinton endorsed the expansion of affirmative action, to include white male-owned companies that locate in, or hire from, impoverished areas. So, in other words, if Bill Gates and Prince Charles start a company in the South Bronx, then they, too, will be eligible for governmental preference. Indeed, the ghost of Great Society President Lyndon B. Johnson seemed to animate Mr. Clinton as he talked of using government spending to aid the disadvantaged, rattling off a litany of zones and banks and boards that he claimed would help. Mr. Clinton didn't mention that just these sorts of programs were put in place 30 years ago. And the result? The likes of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., got control of the purse strings and have been dispensing pork to favored constituents and fat-cat contributors ever since.
To be sure, Mr. Clinton said that he would "mend" affirmative action programs, in light of recent Supreme Court decisions. Yet for all his talk, there's little evidence that anyone in the Clinton administration has any intention of doing anything. The audience reaction Wednesday was indicative: Every time Mr. Clinton praised affirmative action, he was applauded. But when he said that someday -- but not any day soon -- affirmative action must end, the crowd was pin-drop silent. So don't expect reformist zeal from mid-level administration quotacrats.
Does Mr. Clinton truly believe, as he said Wednesday, that America can have "goals and timetables," but not "rigid quotas"? Mr. Clinton is better than most at holding contradictory points of view in his head -- and agreeing with both. However, buried in the fine print of the 96-page memo accompanying Mr. Clinton's speech was an admission that the biggest policy shift the Clintonians are contemplating is a name change: "quotas" will be known as "explicit targeting."
Mr. Clinton said he knows how to make affirmative action work. But even more, he knows politics. What Mr. Clinton really wants to do is stall for time. Affirmative action is now a hot issue that threatens to hurt Mr. Clinton in the general election, but the wheel of fortune spins a new direction every day.
Six months from now, if Mr. Jackson has been defused and the November election still looks tough, then maybe Mr. Clinton will reassess "explicit targeting," just as he did the budget. If he does reverse course, that change will come quickly, before the ++ White House staff can mutiny. Once again, BillClinton will be Bill Clinton: with misty eyes, wrinkled nose, and bit lip, he will argue that the courts and the Republicans made him do it -- and that he never inhaled the now-abandoned policy.
James P. Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist.