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Clinton Charms Affirmative Action Foes
White House Meeting Offers Little Agreement, Lots of Cordiality

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 1997; Page A01

Affirmative action opponents said they deserved to be heard, and President Clinton yesterday gave them their chance. When it was all over – after 90 minutes of cordial and occasionally pointed conversation – some of Clinton's most caustic critics came out cooing.

A group including several of the nation's most prominent foes of racial preference programs – including University of California regent Ward Connerly; Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.); and Linda Chavez, head of the Civil Rights Commission under President Ronald Reagan – emerged from the White House lavishing praise on Clinton for what they called his keen insight into racial problems and the respectful understanding he had shown for their views.

For a moment, it seemed as if one of the most divisive issues in American life had melted away. Affirmative action opponents have accused Clinton of advocating quotas that divide Americans by race; Clinton has accused affirmative action opponents of being content to resegregate America. Yesterday both sides chose to give the other the benefit of the doubt.

"I must confess to you that I came today with a certain amount of cynicism," said Connerly, who led the effort to repeal California's affirmative action programs in higher education. "But I must tell you that the president made a believer out of me, that he is of goodwill."

Connerly allowed as how it was possible he had been beguiled by Clinton's famous gift for empathy. And, White House advisers made clear that while Clinton had found his conversation with the conservatives stimulating he had not reversed his support for affirmative action.

The reality is that both sides had – at least for the afternoon – a strong mutual interest in getting along. Clinton was able to answer criticism that what he calls his "national conversation on race" was really a choir in which dissenting voices are not welcome.

The conservatives, for their part, said the meeting was an important validation. So far, the loudest anti-affirmative action message heard by Clinton's commission to study race relations had been a David Duke supporter who showed up at a meeting in Fairfax County this week shouting about how white people were losing their "homeland" as minorities get special treatment. Clinton's invitation yesterday, several of the conservatives said, helped show that their views are mainstream, and that to be opposed to affirmative action programs did not mean they are racists or unconcerned about the plight of minorities.

Author Abigail Thernstrom, who with her husband recently wrote a book arguing against affirmative action, said Clinton's message was: "The position you have, though you may disagree with me, has moral and intellectual legitimacy."

White House press secretary Michael McCurry agreed this is Clinton's view. If so, it is not shared by all of his team. Harvard Law Prof. Christopher Edley Jr., a White House consultant to the race initiative, was quoted in Slate, an Internet magazine, calling the Thernstroms' book a "crime against humanity."

McCurry said Clinton was eager to end name-calling and had ordered his staff to stay in touch with the conservatives and solicit their views as his year-long race initiative goes forward.

Although the session was closed to reporters, the White House released a transcript. Clinton occasionally offered his own case for affirmative action – he said minorities would not have a fair chance to overcome prejudice without it – but he spent far more time playing the devil's advocate. He repeatedly challenged opponents about what they would offer as an alternative to existing programs.

"Let's assume we abolished them all tomorrow and we just had to start over. What would you do?"

Connerly said he favors school choice programs that give disadvantaged youths a way of escaping from inferior schools. Chavez said she favors giving special attention to people who are the first-generation in their families to go to college, so long as these breaks are not dispensed on the basis of race. Others similarly made a distinction between "outreach" to encourage equality versus explicit "preferences."

Chavez noted that many minorities are made to feel inferior because it is assumed they got their positions because of affirmative action. Stephan Thernstrom said he chafed at a recent "town meeting" Clinton held on race in Akron, Ohio, in which minorities talked about indignities they had experienced because of race – such as being stopped by police – but no one to challenged them by saying " 'Hey, are you sure it was racism; maybe it was X,Y, or Z.' "

At times, Clinton seemed to be purposely goading his guests. Pointing out that many drugs are brought across the border, he wondered whether the conservatives felt so strongly about color-blind policies that they wouldn't allow police to devote special attention to Hispanics. "If you were running a police force . . . and you couldn't stop every car, which cars would you stop."

But no one took the bait. None of the affirmative action foes said they agreed that it was acceptable for police to target any racial group.

Clinton repeatedly made his points with reference to sports. He noted that most people have overcome any latent racial attitudes in arenas where nobody doubts that hiring is based on merit: "Why do all these rich, white Republicans pay to go down and watch some black guys play basketball at the MCI Center?"

And he chided Connerly about how the University of California system had made exceptions to its strict merit admissions for two groups: alumni children and athletes. If this type of affirmative action is good, he asked, why not also to promote racial diversity?

Vice President Gore, who attended the session, sparked a debate by posing a hypothetical city that was half-black and half-white, but where the police force was all-white. Would it be preferable to have some blacks on the force? Would an affirmative action program be an acceptable way to meet the goal?

Canady, who has proposed legislation to eliminate racial preference programs by the federal government, said it would be desirable to have a more racially balanced force, but not acceptable to use racial designations for hiring officers rather than strictly merit.

Canady said that while he was pleased by the session and predicted it would "delegitimize the demonizers" and lead to a more civil debate, it had not persuaded him to change his legislation or wait until Clinton's race initiative is concluded in six months before seeking passage.

Among the others the White House invited to the session and identified as "conservatives" were former labor secretary Lynn Martin; Thaddeus Garrett, a black academic who described himself as a "fifth-generation Republican;" and Elaine Chao, an Asian American representing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) who noted that race-conscious policies can work to the disadvantage of some Asians in college admissions. Because this group is already over-represented on many top-flight campuses, Chao said Asians may need to show higher qualifications than applicants of other ethnic groups. Also, in attendance was former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, a Republican whom Clinton appointed to his race commission.

The conservatives themselves seemed somewhat divided about affirmative action. Garrett said his party had "bogged down" in a discussion over the issue, which he said will probably be decided by the courts anyway. But Connerly said Clinton's race initiative has been hurt by the lack of "honest dialogue" by those who support racial "preferences." He said Clinton's commission was too biased to discuss the issue and urged that the topic be removed from its agenda.

One prominent invitee, Jack Kemp, backed out at the last moment. The 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee said he thought it was wrong to have the debate behind closed doors.

The White House allowed one "pool reporter," feeding all news organizations, into the session and released a transcript hours later. White House aides said opening the session to all news organizations or providing live audio would inhibit the discussion.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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