Thursday, November 13, 1997 12:00 AM
Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, with his stiff neck and high collars, looks like someone from an earlier century. He is a pompous, pious Mormon, and his round brown eyes perpetually pop in surprise and shock at Democratic follies -- except, that is, when he is collaborating with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) on bills for children's health insurance, or day care or help for the disabled. When not engaged in humanitarian enterprises, Hatch takes up the cudgels for the right wing of his party. He notably baited Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings, preposterously charging her with plagiarism of "The Exorcist" for her testimony.
He also writes songs about diversity and harmony in American society. Right now, in the struggle over the nomination of Bill Lann Lee to be head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the songwriter and the hatchet man are in mortal combat. Hatch has put down the "better angels of his nature" to please his far-right leaders. Lee is so exceptional that Hatch invites charges of racism for opposing him. He denies it, but what else could it be?
Bill Lann Lee's personal history is affecting: His father, a poor Chinese laundryman, fought his way to respect in World War II; his academic record is dazzling -- Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude at Yale; his career, Hatch himself said, was informed by "a profoundly admirable passion to improve the lives of Americans who had been left behind." He worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and won admiration from opposing counsel.
Initially, Hatch praised him, and Lee seemed headed for easy confirmation.
But House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) released a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). He trashed Lee for using "dubious means" in a Los Angeles case involving racial and gender preferences. Those ugly charges were later totally disproved, but it did not help. Gingrich was really serving notice that affirmative action must be kept alive as an issue. Anti-affirmative action measures lost in both houses, and in the matter of California's Proposition 209, the Supreme Court said it did not care to get involved. The speaker was really saying that Republicans can once again appeal to its core constituency -- the angry white male, their hero in the 1994 by-elections.
Proponents concede that you can be opposed to affirmative action out of motives other than racism. The wonder is that Republicans can't leave it alone. They are very slow to abandon radioactive political positions. For years, they were sure they could destroy Social Security, a genuinely popular program which undermined their theory that all government activity is malign. They wanted to privatize it, make it voluntary, invest the funds. They burned their fingers down to the bone playing with this particular fire. It is the same with race. The party of Abraham Lincoln thinks that it can wring some advantage out of exploiting this most delicate and volatile social problem -- and not be thought racist.
The politics are difficult to fathom. In pandering to its base, and the baser instincts of the electorate, they damage the image of the "big tent," which they sporadically put forward. They systematically alienate one constituency after another. They have offended blacks at every opportunity; they have driven away Hispanics with their harsh immigration policies. Now Hatch is aiding and abetting an attempt to antagonize a large new constituency, Asian Americans. This could be called a twofer: further alarming blacks, and adding Asian Americans who in Bill Lann Lee thought they had put forward their brightest and their best.
Hatch's friends insist he is no racist. William T. Coleman Jr., the black man appointed by President Gerald Ford to be secretary of transportation, who is now the Grand Old Man of the remnants of moderate Republicanism, says "there is not a scintilla of racism in Hatch -- I spent five days with him in 1991 talking about the civil rights bill, and there was no trace." Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and Lee's champion, says Hatch is not "motivated racially." But Leahy went on to recall prejudice and discrimination in his Irish Catholic grandfather's time and suggested that to reject Lee would be to "backtrack on civil rights."
Hatch the songwriter writes of "one voice that will start a grand chorus." But the hatchet man raised his voice to claim that Lee's advocacy of affirmative action -- which after all is the law -- as being disqualifying. He will not even permit the full Senate to vote on the nomination. It is both witless and ominous and shows the price a man with an 80 percent approval rating in his own state will pay to get right with the implacable right.