The most cynical quote to come out of the Bush White House in a long time appeared in Tuesday's Washington Times, the day after the president vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990. An unnamed White House official gave this appraisal of the veto impact on the upcoming elections:

"It's just a few days of bad headlines. Otherwise, it means nothing to most voters. They don't know. They don't care. It doesn't mean a thing."

That assessment goes right to the heart of whether voters are making the connection between legislative battles in Washington and what happens in their daily lives. It goes to the heart of whether they are getting the information they need to participate in a democracy.

Ralph Neas, the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, says the challenge with civil rights legislation is to translate legal issues into terms that are easily understood. "On the Bork nomination, what I thought was the deciding point was when he said why he wanted to be on the court and he said he looked forward to an intellectual feast. The first two witnesses against him were {former transportation secretary} William Coleman and {former Texas representative} Barbara Jordan. They talked about the Supreme Court decisions in the early '60s that had transformed America. They made it understandable to everyone that these decisions, {such as} the one person, one vote rulings, had changed lives. Barbara Jordan, a black woman, tried to run in the '60s, but she said she could not get elected. Bill Coleman graduated first at Harvard Law School but it was very difficult for him to get a job.

"Our success depends on being able to show that this is not some arcane legal debate. You have to explain what's at stake and how it impacts on individuals.

"What is at stake with the Civil Rights Act? It has nothing to do with quotas -- everything to do with being able to get into court and being able to prove discrimination. It has monetary damages for victims of sex discrimination. Helen Brooms fell down a flight of stairs because she was being pursued by her harasser," yet she could not collect punitive damages. "If you get that Helen Brooms story out before the public, that's easy to understand. Millions of women and millions of men would be outraged that that could happen in 1990. You have to persuade the Congress, the press and the American people that this will make a significant difference in the lives of the American people.

"With civil rights legislation, the opposition tries to turn every debate into a quota debate and then it comes up with a million hypotheticals that have nothing to do with reality. The purpose is to get everyone involved in this legal maze so that you are forever having these legal debates about hypotheticals that will never come to pass, but will get you bogged down endlessly.

"You have to frame the message properly and get the message out. If you don't win the battle for the hearts and minds of the voter, you won't win the battle for the heart and mind of those who vote in Congress."

And he points out that women and minorities had almost two-thirds of the votes in both houses on the Civil Rights Act -- just one short in the Senate of overriding the presidential veto.

As for how well the voters are informed about legislation that affects them, Neas points to the press. "Very seldom does the press explain the substantive issues at stake in the legislation, whether it's in terms of the legal issues or the practical impact these issues have on the lives of Americans. I think the press is attracted to the adversarial situations and the political battles and they cover these issues quite well, but taking the time to explain the real issues is not something the press does well."

Nancy Duff Campbell, head of the National Women's Law Center, says the Civil Rights Act veto, coming on the heels of the veto of the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the initial minimum wage bill veto, will be remembered by voters. "People are going to see this as one of a series of slights to women this year. There is a need to be organized and to vote and to ask candidates what their views are. We should not underestimate the climate of public opinion that can be created by those things."

She points to the 8th Congressional District battle between incumbent Republican Stan Parris, who is against abortion, and Democratic challenger James Moran, who favors abortion rights. "We are seeing in this election more than in the past issues that women care about."

And as they have shown in most of the elections that have been decided on the abortion vote, they do know, they do care and some things mean a lot. The challenge for the civil rights movement is to make them mean even more.