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Clinton Avows Support for Affirmative Action

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 1995; Page A01

Five months after questioning the future of affirmative action, President Clinton yesterday reached into his past for the answer, reciting the nation's racial progress since his days growing up in segregated Arkansas and vowing to support continued government intervention on behalf of minorities and women.

"My experiences with discrimination are rooted in the South and in the legacy slavery left," Clinton said at the start of a solemn speech at the National Archives. He concluded: "The job of ending discrimination in this country is not done. . . . We should reaffirm the principle of affirmative action and fix the practices. We should have a simple slogan: Mend it, but don't end it."

Executive Order

As part of his just-concluded review of affirmative action, President Clinton yesterday signed an executive order directing Cabinet secretaries and agency officials to review all affirmative action programs to see that they meet four tests.

"Any program must be eliminated or reformed," Clinton said, "if it:

  • creates a quota.
  • creates preferences for unqualified individuals.
  • creates reverse discrimination.
  • continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved."

    The order, Clinton said, is an effort to bring the government into compliance with the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Adarand v. Pena, which held that federal affirmative action programs must meet a higher legal standard to be judged constitutional. Among other things, the court said that race-based programs must serve a compelling government interest and be narrowly tailored to reach their goal.

  • The president sketched in broad terms the changes he would like: a crackdown on fraud in government contracts steered to minorities and women under "set-aside" programs, for instance, and ensuring that firms only benefit for a fixed period of time.

    The thrust of the speech, though, was a full-throated endorsement of government preference programs, not the political retreat that the administration had mulled last February, when Clinton began a government-wide review of affirmative action by saying, "We shouldn't be defending things that we can't defend."

    Many of the leaders of minority and women's groups who earlier had expressed deep resentment of Clinton's review were in the audience for his speech and roared their approval. Jesse L. Jackson, who has been threatening to challenge Clinton for the presidency, offered lavish praise in a telephone interview from California. By contrast, Republican presidential candidates rushed out statements accusing Clinton of supporting reverse discrimination and promising to make the issue a centerpiece of the 1996 campaign.

    Some moderate Democrats, who had urged Clinton to aggressively restructure affirmative action to put less emphasis on race and more on helping low-income people of all sorts, offered tepid comments. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, did not criticize Clinton but took an opposite interpretation of recent Supreme Court decisions. He said rulings such as Adarand v. Pena, which requires that preference programs be narrowly tailored to achieve a "compelling" government interest, mean that the days are unavoidably numbered for many race-based programs.

    But Clinton, faced with a sure fight next year, decided that he was more comfortable politically and personally with the traditional allies of affirmative action by his side. Despite his equivocating last winter, he ultimately decided he could defend virtually everything the government is doing to push educational institutions and private firms to open doors wider for minorities and women.

    His argument was that widespread prejudice still exists and that greater inclusiveness in education and hiring benefits the economy as a whole.

    He recalled that in 1960 Atlanta gave itself the slogan, "The city too busy to hate." While acknowledging that some residents of that former segregationist redoubt did occasionally find time to resist integration, Clinton said, "I am confident that Atlanta's success – it is now home to more foreign corporations than any other American city, and one year from today it will begin to host the Olympics – all began when people got too busy to hate."

    Much of the current backlash against affirmative action, Clinton said, comes not from cases of reverse discrimination, which he argued are rare, but from the "sweeping historic changes" taking place in the global economy that have left many lower- and middle-income whites struggling to keep pace.

    "Affirmative action did not cause the great economic problems of the American middle class," Clinton said. "It is simply wrong to play politics with the issue of affirmative action and divide our country at a time when, if we're really going to change things, we have to be united."

    Those words won Clinton the warmest praise he has received in months from Jackson, who earlier had accused the president of contributing to a "scapegoating" trend.

    "He set a strong moral tone for the country, and I thought it was presidential in the best sense of the word," Jackson said in an interview, before adding that "it will take more than one speech" before his concerns about Clinton are sufficiently allayed to rule out a presidential bid.

    While Clinton often spends too much time figuring the political angles, Jackson said yesterday, "his heart and his head were synchronized."

    Many women's groups struck a similar note. Marcia Greenberger, of the National Woman's Law Center, said Clinton's speech "was extraordinary in the president's ability to articulate the country's stake in affirmative action, both as a practical matter and a moral necessity."

    GOP leaders were almost uniformly derogatory in their comments. Clinton said his concept of affirmative action does not include rigid "quotas," only flexible goals, and does not allow the hiring of unqualified people. But Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), a presidential candidate and affirmative action supporter turned critic, called this a dodge.

    The issue is not the quota vs. goal distinction, he said in a statement, but "the practice of dividing Americans through any form of preferential treatment. . . . The real issue here isn't preferences for the unqualified, which virtually every American opposes, but preferences for the less qualified' versus those who are more qualified.' "

    GOP presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan said "affirmative action belongs in the same graveyard as Jim Crow."

    And another Republican contender, California Gov. Pete Wilson, drew special ire from the White House with his comment that Clinton's policies were encouraging "tribalism" in American life. "For Governor Wilson to use a word like tribalism' is the kind of code-word politics that Republicans have engaged in for generations," said White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos, who oversaw Clinton's review.

    Republicans in Congress are divided about the scope and focus of efforts to overhaul affirmative action. But there are two principal legislative thrusts: One is a sweeping bill, being sponsored in the Senate by Dole and in the House by Rep. Charles T. Canaday (R-Fla.), that would eliminate gender and race-based federal affirmative action programs. Dole said he would introduce his bill next week; Canady plans his before the August recess.

    The other initiative is an attempt to eliminate set-asides for minorities and women in federal contracting through amendments to appropriations bills scheduled to reach the floors of the House and Senate next week. Leading that effort are Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Rep. Gary A. Franks (R-Conn.). Staff writer Kevin Merida contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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