Maybe I've misjudged Clarence Pendleton, the loose-lipped chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. It had been my impression that he simply did not care very much about the issues he's been spouting off about: that he was in it for "Penny."
That had been my way of explaining why he expostulated on matters ranging from affirmative action and comparable worth to the Jesse Jackson presidential candidacy in ways that seemed calculated to make him, not his issues, the focus of attention. I've known Pendleton since the 1960s, when he was a swimming coach at Howard University, and I've always thought him bright enough to state his views in ways that would trigger thought rather than useless outrage.
Maybe I was wrong. To judge from a recent interview in The Post, he seems genuinely confused as to what the Clarence Pendleton controversy is about.
He listed a number of black thinkers -- including Virginia's Lt. Gov. Doug Wilder, Princeton's Glenn Loury, Robr Neighborhood Enterprise, Clarence Thomas, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams -- and said, with obvious bafflement, that they all "sound just like me." Why, he wondered, has he become the "whipping boy"?
Pendleton shares with most of these men little more than a generally conservative outlook. Loury's call for an organized assault on immorality, loss of values and other "enemies within" comes off as an earnest view of what is required for black progress in the post-civil rights era. Woodson's emphasis, which he voices far less shrilly than when he first formed the Council for a Black Economic Agenda, is on empowerment of grass- roots leaders. Wilder's call for black Americans to "redig the wells our fathers dug . . . of pride in endeavor and accomplishment (and) discipline of mind and body" had the ring of genuine leadership. These men inspire thought, even among those who profoundly disagree with them.
But Pendleton is not content to discuss issues or question the orthodoxies. His instinct is for the insult. Black leaders who opposed the Reagan reelection were not merely urged to reconsider their overwhelming reliance on the Democratic Party; they were leading their people to "a political Jonestown." Advocates of affirmative action and other special prescriptions for black America's special condition are not simply following a questionable strategy; they are "new racists." The traditional civil rights leadership is not urged to rethink its priorities and approaches; it is hustling race for money.
The Hoover Foundation's Sowell, like his Washington-area echo, Williams, used to be similarly impolitic, and the result was that, like Williams, he found himself ignored except by white conservatives.
Pendleton, for whom "impolitic" vastly understates the case, has been so outrageous that even the white Reagan appointees on the Civil Rights Commission have called for his resignation: not because they differ with his views but because they understand that Pendleton's reckless assaults on respected leaders keep those views from being seriously considered even by blacks who might find them attractive. It is for the same reason that a number of black Republicans have moved recently to put distance between themselves and Pendleton. It's tough enough to march against the crowd without being linked to a buffoon into the bargain.
"You know, you're right," Pendleton has told me on a number of occasions when I have remarked on the counterproductive nature of his intemperance. "I'm going to have to tone it down."
Sometimes he does -- for days at a time. But then he resumes his dialogue-killing insults.
Does he forget? Does he not really understand the damage he does to the beliefs he professes to hold? Is he simply incapable of bridling his insensitive tongue?
It really doesn't matter any more. Pendleton has managed to make himself anathema to the civil rights establishment of which his agency used to be a key member, an enemy of black Americans and a liability even to those who share his conservative views.
He has rendered himself finally useless, and the suspicion here is that he doesn't even care.