President Bush said yesterday that U.S. colleges and universities should abandon a long-standing, if disputed, practice of giving preference in admissions to students with family connections.
"I think colleges ought to use merit in order for people to get in," Bush said. His remarks, before 7,000 minority journalists, were the first time the White House has addressed the issue of "legacy" admissions, the practice of giving an edge to the children of alumni.
Critics say such admissions, used particularly by the nation's most competitive private institutions, can freeze out qualified applicants in favor of ones who are affluent and -- often -- white. Defenders say legacies can solidify loyalty among alumni and benefit minority students as well.
Bush drew attention, as he has in the past, to the fact that he followed his father into Yale University, even though he was a mediocre student. When he returned to Yale to deliver a commencement address in 2001, a few months after taking office, Bush was self-deprecating about his academic performance during his college days. "And to the C students, I say, 'You, too, can be president of the United States,' " he said then.
Yesterday, Bush again noted his family's ties to Yale, where his grandfather, who became a U.S. senator, went to college and his daughter Barbara received a degree this year. "Yeah, yeah. I thought you were referring to my legacy," he said when a journalist pressed him for his views on the admissions practice. Later in the day, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president had been referring to "how hard he had to work to follow his father into the White House."
Appearing at the Unity: Journalists of Color convention before leaving for a campaign rally in New Hampshire, Bush also asserted that the administration acted correctly last weekend in raising the terrorism threat level near specific buildings in Washington, New York and New Jersey. The intelligence on which that decision rested largely predated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "When we find out intelligence that is real, that threatens people, I believe we have an obligation, as government, to share that with people," Bush told the journalists. "And imagine what would happen if we didn't share that information with the people in those buildings and something were to happen. Then what would you write?"
Bush, who has made terrorism and the Iraq war central to his presidency, sounded rueful about that emphasis. "This is a dangerous time. I wish it wasn't that way," he said. "Who in the heck wants to be a war president?"
Most of his 53-minute visit to the journalism convention in downtown Washington consisted of his standard stump speech, augmented with themes intended to appeal to minority voters.
Bush discussed the reading performance of African American and Latino youngsters, funding for black colleges and the racial composition of his Cabinet. "I've got people from all walks of life who advise me," he said. The president is working to improve his low standing with minority voters. Recent Washington Post-ABC News surveys indicate that 80 percent of black voters favor Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, while 10 percent support Bush. Latino's favor Kerry to Bush by a 2 to1 margin, according to another poll last month.
The journalists' reaction to Bush was tepid compared with their enthusiastic reception for Kerry, who spoke at the same convention Thursday. Breaking with journalists' custom of neutrality, the audience gave Kerry a standing ovation even before he began speaking and interrupted his remarks with applause nearly 50 times.
In contrast, Bush drew a smattering of polite applause and a standing ovation at the end of his appearance. At one point, his speech was interrupted by a heckler who cried out "Shame on you for lying to the media, misleading the public" before being evicted from the room.
Ernest Sotomayer, a Newsday Web journalist who is president of Unity '04, echoed the views of many audience members when he said of Bush, "I wish he would have been able to give us much more detail on things like affirmative action and commitments to get more [minority] hiring in the media industry."
Kerry drew loud applause Thursday when he said the government should take steps to ensure that every vote is counted in the November elections because more than 1 million African Americans had been disenfranchised in 2000 "in one of the most tainted elections in history."
Yesterday, when Bush was asked whether he would support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all Americans the right to vote, he did not respond directly, saying that the main problem was that too few people go to the polls.
In responding to a series of questions about college admissions, Bush repeated his opposition to quotas. The administration had filed a brief in an affirmative-action case, decided by the Supreme Court last year, that opposed admissions practices used by the University of Michigan that the court upheld.
Admissions legacies are a less widespread and less political issue than affirmative action. Last year, however, one of Congress's senior Democrats, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), introduced a version of a higher-education authorization act that would require colleges and universities to disclose whether they use that practice and how many students are admitted in part because of family ties. A Kerry campaign official said that Kerry and running mate Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) also oppose legacy admissions.
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.