Civil rights advocates must be feeling a little like a patient who has learned that while his cancer hasn't been cured, it has, for the time being at least, stopped spreading.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has refused to participate in the promotion of William Bradford Reynolds to the No. 3 job in the Justice Department, to which he had been nominated by President Reagan. That action does nothing to undo the damage already done by Reynolds, who will continue in his post as assistant attorney general for civil rights. But it may serve to put some limit on his counter- revolutionary zeal.
Reynolds, with the tacit and sometimes participatory blessing of the White House, has been a one-man malignancy, eating away at two decades of civil- rights gains, including settled federal cy. And though charged with the principal responsibility for federal enforcement of civil rights law, he has hardly passed up an opportunity to weaken that enforcement -- whether by inaction, by sometimes bizarre interpretations of law, or by unilateral attempts to overturn settled school-desegregation and affirmative-action cases.
But while it was his reactionary record that led civil rights advocates to oppose his promotion to the rank of associate attorney general, what apparently moved key members of the Judiciary Committee were his misleading answers to questions raised during nearly two months of confirmation hearings.
Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), who cast crucial "no" votes on three separate efforts to get the nomination before the full Senate, said his examination of the hearing record led him to conclude that the nominee had been "deceptive and lacking in forthrightness."
Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (a coalition of 175 national organizations representing minorities, women, the disabled, senior citizens, labor and religious groups) acknowledges that Reynolds' lack of candor may have been a critical factor in Thursday's committee action, but he thinks that something a good deal more significant was involved.
"My analysis," he said in an interview, "is that up to June 18, the third day of hearings, seven or eight (of 18) committee members had made up their mind to oppose, based primarily on his failure to enforce vigorously and uniformly the civil rights statutes; the remaining two or three were decided on the question of credibility.
"The hearings did something else that was of major importance: they removed the smoke screen that the real differences between the administration and the civil rights community were affirmative action and busing. It very quickly became apparent that that wasn't the issue. The issue was also disability rights, fair housing and voting rights. That is one of the many beneficial consequences of the hearings."
Is Reynolds a racist?
"I honestly don't read him as a racist," Neas said. "Brad and others in the administration are ideologues whose ideology blinds them to their responsibilities under the law. Such questions as busing and affirmative action have many sides, and everybody is entitled to take his own position.
"But if you want to change the law, you have to go to the courts or to Congress. Both the courts and the Congress repeatedly repudiated Reynolds, and he proceeded to act outside the process. You can't have government by executive fiat."
Neas thinks -- or at any rate, hopes -- that Thursday's action will serve as "a signal that he has to curb some of his excesses."
Perhaps. But my suspicion is that Reynolds, like some others in the administration, sees himself as part of a righteous crusade to undo two decades of race-specific las, court orders, procedures and consent decrees -- heedless that his zeal is doing the nation more harm than good.
It will take a good deal more than a committee vote to convince him that he is wrong, as a matter of politics, morality and law.
The cancer on civil rights may be in remission, but I have no confidence that it has been cured. Still, for those who saw Reynolds' proposed promotion as a dangerous, new metastasis, remission must look pretty good.