ADD TO THE charges the presidential campaigns are hurling back and forth the Dukakis campaign's new charge that the Bush campaign is making racist appeals. We think it's a phony, no more credible than those vicious and baseless charges that the Bush campaign had been making about Gov. Dukakis' patriotism. Lloyd Bentsen, asked whether there is a racial element to the Bush campaign's emphasis on furloughs, replied, "When you add it up, I think there is." Jesse Jackson, speaking in Boston, said "There have been a number of rather ugly race-conscious signals sent from that campaign." Some have gone so far as to charge that Mr. Bush's assertion that Mr. Dukakis is a liberal also has racist undertones. If that term is out of bounds, what form of discourse is not?
The one serious question in this is whether the Bush campaign's attacks on the furlough program that freed prisoner Willie Horton, sentenced to life-without-parole, are an appeal to racism. You can believe that the importance of this topic was greatly overstated and that the "lessons" drawn from it were demagogic and extravagantly sinister without accepting its use as the basis for a charge of racism against Mr. Bush. To begin with, the Bush campaign wasn't the first to raise the furlough issue against Gov. Dukakis; Sen. Albert Gore was, in an April 1988 debate in New York. The Bush campaign has done some disgusting things in this campaign. But the facts are that Massachusetts is the only state that furloughed prisoners sentenced to life without parole, and that for 11 years Mr. Dukakis supported that policy and resisted attempts to end it. It may or may not be relevant to stress that, but it isn't racist.
On racial questions, what we find disturbing in this campaign is not appeals to racist feelings but the conspicuous failure of both candidates to address the particular needs and interests of black Americans. Any candid view of our history and our current situation cries out that blacks have a special claim on the attention of those who govern. But they are getting scarcely any at all from this year's nominees -- one because he seems afraid to give it, the other because he seems uninterested.
Mr. Dukakis, speaking at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., this summer brushed past the murder of three civil rights workers in that county in 1964. You wonder what held him back. Mr. Bush has devoted almost no time or attention to the situation of black Americans. A certain amount of charge-and-countercharge is probably inevitable in a campaign, but it isn't inevitable or desirable for two candidates to ignore almost entirely one out of 10 of their fellow citizens.