Republicans and conservatives came to the White House the other day for one of those intimate little meetings with the President. He must have served them coffee, because without it, their intensely dull palaver about race in America would have put everyone, even that indefatigable listener Bill Clinton, to sleep.
The trouble was not that these conservatives don’t mean well, despite their obtuse objections to affirmative action. The trouble was that these conservatives of good will aren’t the conservatives who most need to talk out their attitudes concerning race.
The conservatives who might benefit most from baring their souls on this tender topic are those who habitually exploit racial animosities for political advantage, and who have done so for many years at great expense to the nation.
Mr. Clinton’s Oval Office guest list included none of these unsavory types. Instead, the President entertained a group that featured Tom Kean, the bluff, centrist former New Jersey Governor who always managed to win an unusually high percentage of black votes for a Republican; Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, a pair of Harvard pedants with a sunny view of racial progress; Thaddeus Garrett Jr., a black Republican who sounds more or less like a Democrat; former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, who talked about how nice it is finally to have some black friends; and the celebrated Ward Connerly, California businessman and author of Proposition 209, which outlaws racial preferences in his home state.
Mr. Connerly happens to be black, and he fell hard for the President’s charm, just like the overwhelming majority of black males who have voted for this Southern white man in every election. As soon as Mr. Connerly sat down, in fact, he noted what was, for him, a “somewhat ironical” circumstance: After years of raising large sums for the Republicans, he finally had been asked to the White House by a Democratic President.
In this polite atmosphere, Mr. Clinton’s guests never mentioned the political problem that decent conservatives and Republicans must face someday. It isn’t whether or how to continue affirmative action programs, a complex issue that probably will be settled in court. It is why conservatives and Republicans tolerate behavior in their own ranks that intentionally divides America along racial lines.
This nasty question was ignored because the truly bad actors on the right weren’t there to be confronted. Although everyone knows who they are, they always escape the opprobrium they deserve; on the contrary, they are treated with utmost courtesy by their fellow Republicans and conservatives, as if no one noticed their offenses against civil society.
Why wasn’t Senator Jesse Helms asked to come over to the White House with a few of his political consultants, so they could explain the purpose of the notorious “white hands” commercial? Running against black Democrat Harvey Gantt, Mr. Helms showed a video of a pair of white and evidently male hands crumpling a rejection letter, while the voice-over complained bitterly about jobs going to less-qualified minorities. He could have brought along Tom Ellis, the leading conservative strategist and longtime Helms operative, who used to direct the Pioneer Fund, a foundation devoted to “scientific” proof that blacks are genetically inferior to whites.
For that matter, where was Charles Murray, the quack sociologist and right-wing idol whose book The Bell Curve purported to prove the same vicious theory a few years ago? Surely he deserved a chance to present his views about affirmative action, a policy he considers worse than useless to minority populations, who are beneath improvement. An encounter with Mr. Murray might have proved truly enlightening for Mr. Connerly.
Or how about our own Bob Grant, the radio host whose raspy diatribes against blacks have done so much to degrade race relations in the New York metropolitan area? His pungent commentaries at long last were too disgusting for WABC-AM, the station where he used to hold forth, but listeners with strong stomachs can find him on WOR-AM. As a demagogue who has enjoyed the patronage of the Mayor and other prominent Republicans, Mr. Grant would have brought an important dimension to the President’s meeting.
And why didn’t Mr. Clinton extend an invitation to Floyd Brown, the conservative impresario responsible for the Willie Horton commercial? These days, Mr. Brown spends most of his time inflaming paranoia about the United Nations, but he remains proud of his brief, unforgettable contribution to the 1988 Presidential election, an ad whose sole image was a frightening mug shot of Mr. Horton, the black rapist and murderer who escaped from a Massachusetts prison furlough program. The Horton commercial wasn’t exactly subtle, but then this kind of propaganda rarely is. As a skilled heir to the political style of the late Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater, Mr. Brown would have brought to the table an important sense of party tradition.
That tradition has been dressed up in various slogans over the years, from “law and order” to “abolish affirmative action.” But the Republicans who visited the President know very well that for too many leaders of their party, racial tension is not a problem but a strategy.