PRESIDENT BUSH loves to speak well of his civil rights record, as he did at a White House news conference this week. But when given an opportunity in the same conference to denounce the North Carolina GOP's ballot security program -- which mailed out misleading and intimidating postcards to black voters -- Mr. Bush waffled.

Asked about his silence and if he knew about the program, the president said, "Yeah, just what I've read in the papers. I read a lot of charges and countercharges, and I've heard some people say it's bad, and I've heard others say it's not . . . anytime somebody puts in what they call a voter security program, some people raise hell about it, and that's not right either. So, it ought to be -- it depends how it's done. And I just don't know enough about what you're trying to get me into to get into that."

What occurred in North Carolina is really not so confounding as all that. Nor is there much of a dispute about either the anti-civil rights coloration of the ballot security program or how it was implemented. In the waning hours of the racially charged contest between Sen. Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt, the North Carolina Republican Party sent 150,000 postcards to predominately Democratic and heavily black precincts warning voters that they could be fined or sent to jail if they voted in precincts where they haven't lived within the past 30 days.

The Justice Department's civil rights division branded the North Carolina GOP mailings "false and misleading" and dispatched a team of lawyers to North Carolina to observe the voting. And in response to a complaint filed by the Democratic National Committee, a federal judge in New Jersey found that the North Carolina GOP tactics were similar to those intimidation ploys prohibited in consent decrees and settlement agreements entered into by the Republican National Committee for violations in New Jersey in 1982 and Louisiana in 1987. The judge, unfortunately, was not able to take any action because the RNC in Washington could not be linked with the tactics of the North Carolina GOP. But even the RNC labeled the North Carolina ballot security program "counterproductive." The president, however, when asked about it just vacillated.

Mr. Bush wants to be accepted as " pro-civil rights" as he billed himself at his news conference. Temporizing on as fundamental issue as the right of blacks to vote free of intimidation won't get him there. He's likely to take a step closer, however, if he can show the strength of his conviction by taking a firm and unequivocal stand as president and leader of his party against the disgraceful ballot security program.