George Bush would like to be seen as the rainbow president. He's augmented his administration with minorities and made racial equality a focus of his domestic policy. Yet there are disturbing signs the country-club elitism of the Reagan years lives on in the Bush White House.
Sure, the president can tout an integrated Cabinet. Health Secretary Louis W. Sullivan is black; Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. and Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos are both Hispanic. Housing Secretary Jack Kemp has made inroads with minorities through his publicized visits to homeless shelters and housing projects in the inner cities.
And even though it's as much politics as idealism -- the GOP hopes to woo largely Democratic blacks -- it's still, on its face, a marked improvement over Ronald Reagan's feeble performance on civil rights.
But some of those improvements could be an illusion. The stained records of some Bush appointees behind the scenes blows the administration's cover on civil rights. In one case, we've learned one of the president's chief advisers was a figure in a GOP effort four years ago to purge thousands of black voters from the rolls in Louisiana.
Lanny Griffith, who now counsels the president on intergovernmental affairs, ran the Republican National Committee in the Southeast when the scandal broke in 1986. Republican Henson Moore and Democrat John Breaux (D-La.) were vying for a U.S. Senate seat when a secret GOP memo, authored by another party official, outlined a plan to keep black voters from the polls. The memo was addressed to Griffith.
The plot involved selective challenges to voter registrations, according to Justice Department records. A state court put a halt to the scheme, and outraged black voters turned out in droves to help Breaux win. Justice Department lawyers called for an FBI probe, but the Reagan administration, not known for its outrage at racism, declined.
In an interview with our associate Scott Sleek, Griffith says he now can't recall his reaction when he received the memo. It happened so long ago, he said, and he added he has worked hard to involve blacks in the GOP. His supporters back him up on that. But Democratic insiders say an administration attempting to win over blacks should do better.
Bush's appointment to head the 1990 economic summit, Fred Malek, also was involved in racial controversy. Malek is the one-time Richard Nixon aide who resigned a top GOP position during Bush's 1988 presidential campaign after reports surfaced that Malek had spearheaded Nixon's secret campaign to identify Jews in one federal agency. Nixon reportedly thought Jews at the Bureau of Labor Statistics were concocting unfavorable economic figures, but Malek has denied any antisemitism
The president also is drawing flak for his appointments to the bench. Civil rights groups charge that Bush has failed to integrate the federal judiciary. Only a fraction of his picks so far have been minorities. Of the whites, some have a dubious devotion to civil rights.