WASHINGTON -- Bob Dole calls his civil rights record "flawless." NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, reacting to Dole's decision to skip the NAACP convention, describes it as "less than stellar." Those who have worked with Dole over the years rank it somewhere in between.
During his more than three decades in Congress, Dole played supportive -- at times pivotal -- roles in every major civil rights bill enacted.
Those bills ranged from measures that opened public accommodations and housing for minorities to ensuring voting rights and equal employment opportunities.
"He's supported civil rights and social questions all of his life," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, a senior Democrat on House Judiciary Committee who is not generally a Dole fan.
But as he has sought the Republican presidential nomination, Dole has retreated from his earlier support of federal hiring preferences for women and minorities -- a stand that puts him at odds with his former allies in the civil rights movement. Last summer, he offered a bill to scrap such preferences.
"It's time to stop making government policy by race [and] end the ridiculous pretense of quota tokenism -- special contracts, a set-aside there, a couple of TV stations, a seat or two in the Cabinet," Dole said then.
"This is a Band-Aid" that does not remedy past discrimination "and a corruption of the principles of individual liberty and equal opportunity upon which our country was founded," Dole argued.
Attacking affirmative action programs looked then like a politically potent issue for Dole in his campaign against President Clinton. The president had said that he wanted to "mend" but not "end" racial and gender-based preferences by the federal government in contracts and hiring.
But Dole's bill has since aroused so much opposition, even among Republicans, that congressional leaders have shelved it. Now, on the campaign trail, Dole doesn't mention the bill.
"That bill would reverse three decades of bipartisan progress on civil rights," said Ralph Neas, former executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the chief lobbying arm of the civil rights movement. "It was totally out of character for Dole and so inconsistent with his record of so many years."
L Dole speaks with pride of his long support for civil rights.
"I have voted for civil rights starting way back in 1964," he said this week. "I managed the Martin Luther King holiday bill on the floor. It was a Republican, not a Democratic, Senate that passed that bill."
As a young congressman in the 1960s, Dole voted for the ground-breaking civil rights bills to end legal segregation. As a rising figure in the Senate, he helped shape compromises that advanced and strengthened those laws.
As the Republican leader in the Senate, Dole often had to work around the resistance of Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush to restore civil rights provisions that had been struck down by federal courts. Nearly two dozen civil rights laws were strengthened in that period.
"The pursuit of equal opportunity is a drama without intermission," Dole told his colleagues in a 1983 debate to make the King birthday a national holiday. "Its cast is proudly nonpartisan."
In a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation of a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, Dole added: "As a Republican, I can never forget that it was my party that originally struck the shackles from black Americans."
Dole seldom took the Republican lead on civil rights issues, a task often left to Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland. Rather, Dole's role was typically to build a consensus and then give a bill the final shove.
In two instances -- the Voting Rights Extension Act of 1982 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which made it easier for workers to win job-discrimination suits -- Dole put together compromises and made pilgrimages to the White House to persuade Reagan, and then Bush, to climb aboard the civil rights bandwagon.
Opponents of affirmative action say they are disappointed that Dole is no longer pushing to repeal hiring preferences.
"His campaign is run by too many inside-the-Beltway patricians, and they are advising him not to take on this issue," said Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that is lobbying for an end preferences and quotas.
The Republican candidate said he suspected that he "probably" would not have have been well-received at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's convention. He blamed his failure to appear at the convention on a scheduling conflict that was dealt with by aides who acted without his knowledge.
Mfume suggested yesterday that it would have been shrewder for Dole to face the NAACP.
Politicians "have to go places where people don't want to hear what you have to say," Mfume said on NBC's "Today" show. "You've got to reach out to people who may be skeptical of you."
"He probably would have received some questions and concerns from people as to why his civil rights record has been less than stellar," Mfume said, adding. "If you want to be president of all the people, you've got to find a way to relate to most of the people."
Dole said he would seek another chance to meet with NAACP board members or perhaps the full membership.
"We'll have other opportunities to speak to an audience that I can, I think I can relate to," the candidate said Thursday morning on the Don Imus radio show.
Pub Date: 7/13/96