Last October President Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990, pleasing conservatives with his denunciation of "the destructive force of quotas" he said it would introduce in the workplace.
The president's language and the veto itself were no coincidence -- at least that's what a prominent Washington public relations and lobbying firm wants a client to believe.
In a memo obtained by The Washington Post, the firm of Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery goes into extensive detail to describe how it orchestrated a campaign against the bill on behalf a group of business organizations known as the Fair Employment Coalition, shaped the debate over the bill and played a big role at one point in preventing the White House from signing it.
The memo goes on to argue that there is "much unfinished work" on the issue in the current session of Congress and suggests, not surprisingly, that Robinson, Lake is the firm to do it.
Among its accomplishments, the firm claims, is persuading such publications as The New Republic to write editorials against the bill. But if Martin Peretz, The New Republic's editor, was swayed by Robinson, Lake or the coalition, it was news to him. Peretz said he "had never even heard of" the firm or its client. Nor does the White House attribute any importance to the firm in developing the administration's position.
Even a spokesman for the coalition raised a question about Robinson, Lake's claims. "We had dubbed this as a quotas bill long before they came into the picture," said Nancy Fulco of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a member of the coalition. "But they did help sharpen the debate."
The memo, written by John Buckley, a Robinson, Lake senior vice president, suggests that in the world of lobbying and public relations, a little hype may sometimes be necessary to get and keep business. And it gives some insight into the kind of maneuvering -- effective or not -- surrounding a major piece of legislation like the civil rights bill.
A public relations firm with offices in New York and Washington, Robinson, Lake was founded in the early years of the Reagan administration by a group of businessmen and Republican Party operatives, including Linda Gosden Robinson, a transportation official in the Reagan administration, and Jim Lake, Reagan's press secretary in three presidential campaigns. Lake runs the Washington office.
At the time the group was hired, Buckley wrote, "Business had been so gun-shy the White House was saying privately that they simply could not sustain opposition to the bill, and therefore they probably were not going to even try."
But thanks to Robinson, Lake's efforts, the memo claimed, journalists and administration officials depicted the measure as one about quotas rather than civil rights. That distinction, the memo claimed, became the basis of attacks against the bill and was instrumental in Bush's decision to veto it.
When the group was hired last May, Bush was prepared to sign the bill, the memo said. But then Buckley and Lake, met with White House officials, and "let them know that we could be of assistance in helping shape arguments to support the president's opposition, and if necessary, eventual veto," according to the memo.
"We were encouraged to help shape the intellectual and political environment to prevent the bill's passage, and failing that, to make better understood the president's reasons for vetoing it," the memo said.
While leaders of the coalition did meet with White House officials several times to discuss the bill, Buckley acknowledged in a recent interview that the meetings were not held at the group's initiative, but at the request of the White House.
A White House spokesman said that members of the coalition "made their views on the civil rights issue clear to the administration," but added that "we have no way of assessing what their influence was on the debate or the president's feelings on the bill. We were meeting with a lot of groups, and it's hard to sift out the importance of just one."
A critical part of its strategy, according to Robinson, Lake, was encouraging stories in the news media that were damaging to the bill and leaking details about negotiations over it that forced Bush to retreat from a potential compromise.
"We worked with the White House," the memo said, "but when negotiators strayed too far we let reporters know it, which at least on one occasion resulted in staving off a potentially devastating administration retreat," the memo said.
Handling the media was clearly a time-consuming task.
"We drafted over a dozen op-ed pieces, helped arrange for people to sign them, and attempted to have them published in both national and local newspapers," the memo said. "We had key editorialists and columnists from such disparate publications as The New Republic and the Wall Street Journal relying on the Fair Employment Coalition for analyses of whatever compromise language was put forward by the bill's proponents."
L. Gordon Crovits, the Journal's deputy editorial page editor, said he was not influenced by Robinson, Lake or its client. "We make up our own minds on editorial positions we take," he said. "We have written editorials against quotas for the past 20 years."
Civil rights groups that supported the bill were sharply critical of the tactics employed by Robinson, Lake as described in the memo. "They distorted the issue by casting it in terms of one single emotional issue," said Melanne Verveer of People For the American Way.
But Buckley defended his firm's approach. "It was our job to see that business's voice was heard on this issue," he said. "And I must say we were very successful."