NO ONE is entitled to be invited to a bill-signing at the White House. It is a privilege, a courtesy extended to those lobbyists,interest groups, legislators and staff who worked hard to get the bill passed. Invitations are usually extended on a bipartisan basis in the spirit of celebrating the completion of a piece of work that involved compromise and consensus.
Last Thursday's signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act was a joyous occasion, particularly for the millions of Americans who will benefit directly from its provisions. To all outward appearances, the signing ceremony was inclusive. Two thousand people were invited. But legislators, staff and the disabilities interest groups that had worked for years on the bill noticed a significant absence. No one from the American Civil Liberties Union had been invited in spite of the fact that lawyers and others in its Washington and national offices had been in the forefront of those working for passage. One, Chai Feldblum, a legislative counsel in Washington, had headed an informal legal team for a group of 120 disability rights organizations and helped draft the original bill and negotiate its passage through both houses. Her dignified response was "Our legacy will be the extension of major civil rights protections to millions of people with disabilities across the nation. What is a signing compared to that?"
During the 1988 campaign, President Bush made repeated reference to the ACLU and implied that membership was somehow subversive. That was a smear and an easy one, for the defenders of civil liberties and the rights of the unpopular are often themselves reviled. In the case of the disabilities bill, however, the ACLU position coincided with one the president proudly took as his own. His refusal to acknowledge the organization's contribution -- when all that was required was to include a couple of people in a crowd of more than 2,000 -- was petty and small-minded.