SAN FRANCISCO -- Meet the "Willie Horton" of the next presidential campaign. He's Lawrence Giovacchini, a fireman here. In April Giovacchini did two things: he applied for captain and changed his ethnic designation from Italian to Hispanic. It worked. Ciao, Larry, and buenos dias, acting Captain Giovacchini.

Horton, of course, was a criminal and Giovacchini is no such thing. But if affirmative action is going to be the issue incoming GOP Chairman William Bennett has promised, then almost certainly a Republican film crew is heading this way. Here is affirmative action in all its messiness -- a well-intentioned idea run thoroughly amok.

Giovacchini is our poster boy. His father is Italian, his mother Hispanic. The city has an affirmative action program for Hispanics, not Italians. At the age of 41, after 16 years in the fire department, Giovacchini had an ethnic epiphany: he was Hispanic. "If the city is going to give me an advantage for being Hispanic, that's fine," Giovacchini said, presumably in English. He was, he said, as proud of one background as he was of another. He did not say, though, what any of this has to do with putting out fires.

As Bennett knows, there is absolutely no way to explain such silliness to the American people. Indeed, they would say -- with some justification -- that the entire concept sounds downright un-American. Why should anyone be designated anything -- Hispanic, Italian, whatever? This is not totalitarian Old Europe, where ethnicity (sometimes designated as nationality) is stamped on a passport. Giovacchini can call himself anything he wants, but he's nothing more (and nothing less) than an American.

The trouble with politics in a media era is that simplifications and personifications carry the day. Thus Willie Horton, a convicted rapist and killer, was enlisted to mug Michael Dukakis. A single furloughed prisoner was made to represent the entire thinking of a thoughtful governor. In a similar fashion, cases where affirmative action programs are abused will be used to hammer any Democrat who supports the concept. Their explanations will be so tortured that Dukakis will appear the model of brevity.

Already the newspapers here use the term "ethnic fraud." Such charges have been brought against people who claim to be what they are not -- Hispanic, for instance. But consider the non-fraud of Giovacchini. His specific brand of (why not?) Hispanicity is Spanish -- from Spain. Yet Spaniards colonized most of the New World, oppressing, enslaving, exploiting and often eradicating the people they encountered. Now, in some odd way, the conqueror is deemed worthy of a special advantage -- more needy, say, than a newly arrived Pole.

If the notion of affirmative action is not preposterous, then its implementation often is. But whatever its good intentions, the concept itself is flawed -- maybe fatally so. Being Hispanic or black or whatever is hardly proof that a person has been the victim of discrimination. If such is indeed the case, then surely society owes something in compensation. But a certain name or a certain complexion is proof of nothing -- and yet that's often all that's needed.

In the modern arena, the position of the Republican Party when it comes to civil rights has been nothing short of reprehensible. When it has not been downright opportunistic, it has been simply indifferent. Even now, Bennett can't seem to discern the difference between a principled objection to affirmative action and the race-baiting (not to mention gay-bashing) tactics of Jesse Helms. When House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) blasted the GOP and, by implication Bennett, for trafficking in racism, he was right on target. Bennett ought to be ashamed of himself.

But if the Democratic Party is going to continue to advance the cause of civil rights, then it must rethink its commitment to affirmative action. The message is confused. It cannot be against racial or ethnic discrimination when minorities are the victims and in favor of it when minorities benefit. Not only is that proposition inconsistent, it's a political suicide pill. White male voters whose grandparents were peasants and whose education stopped at high school hardly see themselves as so advantaged that they ought to step aside for someone else.

In many a neighborhood that would be a hard argument to make -- and cases like Lawrence Giovacchini's make it even harder. Italian one day, Hispanic the next, he's a living rebuke to the American hope that we are all Yankee Doodle Dandies. In San Francisco, a real live nephew of Uncle Sam (Scotch-Irish) might never make captain.