WHAT CAN THEY possibly be thinking of in the White House personnel office? Tuesday's announcement that the president has named the Rev. B. Sam Hart to be a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is stunning. His very first public comments since the nomination was announced have raised as many questions about the judgment of those who chose him as they do about Rev. Hart himself.
The nominee, a black evangelical minister from Philadelphia, condemned busing, the ERA and all homosexuals in remarks to reporters Wednesday. He had no position on tax exemptions for segregated schools. It is possible, of course, to be in favor of civil rights and opposed to busing. Similarly, one can support equal rights for women without necessarily embracing the ERA. But the total picture one gets of Rev. Hart by reading his statements--and particularly the sweeping and intemperate comments about all homosexuals--is that of someone who is dead wrong for this position. Civil rights laws, he believes, are there to protect only those persons who suffer discrimination because of a condition--like race or sex--that they cannot change. Surely he cannot mean that religious affiliation, a clear matter of choice, is not protected by civil rights laws. Or does he believe that if one chooses to be a Presbyterian and is denied a job or a house because of that choice, he must accept the consequences?
Where did the White House find this man? Certainly not in the ranks of civil rights leadership, where he was unknown until yesterday. Certainly not by consulting with Pennsylvania's two Republican senators, Arlen Specter and John Heinz. Neither had ever heard of him until each read of his appointment in the press yesterday. In a letter to the president, the senators have protested the failure to consult them and promised a searching inquiry into the nominee's qualifications.
What should one look for in a civil rights commissioner? The agency, after all, has no real power but that of persuasion. It does not judge or issue orders. It gathers information, holds hearings and makes recommendations to Congress.
Commissioners need not be civil rights activists, and some diversity in their ranks is a good thing. Many fine academicians and southern white conservatives have served, and their participation broadened public acceptance of the commission's recommendations. But those who have served have in common certain characteristics that are essential. They have been men and women who care deeply about injustice and want to remedy it. They have been willing to listen to a broad spectrum of opinion and have worked to include all Americans in the mainstream of our society rather than to classify and exclude. They have been compassionate toward all victims of discrimination. Rev. Hart's statements on Wednesday give no indication that he possesses these qualities or that he is at all suited for this post.