Jewish World Review Jan. 13, 2002/ 10 Shevat, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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When life gets tough,
find a hidey hole | When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Unless things get really tough. Then you run for a hidey hole.

The White House, ignoring George W.'s campaign tough talk, has decided to take a pass on the affirmative-action lawsuit at the University of Michigan. Or maybe not. Karl Rove still has a week to decide.

The Justice Department has prepared a brief supporting the plaintiffs, a group of students who were denied admission to the university because of "race-conscious measures" - i.e., because they're white. They lost in the lower courts. By taking the appeal, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that they think the time has finally come to settle once and for all whether the Constitution really means it when it declares that all men are equal.

You might think this would be a slam-dunk for a straight-talking president who boasts that he says what he means and means what he says. (You could read his lips.) He was eager to tell us during the campaign about his "affirmative-access" program when he was the governor of Texas, guaranteeing the top 10 percent of every high-school graduating class access to a public college or university, regardless of race, sex, creed, color or lack thereof. "This increased diversity based on merit."

The University of Michigan, eager to demonstrate that merit is not necessarily important, awards American Indian, black and Hispanic applicants 20 "bonus points" for admission. This is one of the "race-conscious" practices, which insult minority students most of all, that the lawsuit seeks to prohibit.

The final decision will turn on whether the Supreme Court determines that the Fourteenth Amendment, with its equal-protection clause, prohibits "bonus points" and "race-conscious" practices. The court usually asks the solicitor general to file a brief, to get the government on record. This time it did not. This could be the convenient loophole in which the wise men at the White House hide the president.

"The Lott mess," as one White House aide describes it, has altered the convictions and adjusted the principles of certain wise men for whom politics trumps all. They want the president to be seen as a stand-up guy, but since a president makes a bigger target standing up than sitting down, they want George W. to sit down when he stands up (or find a hole to hide in).

Before "the Lott mess" erupted in Washington - a "mess" largely of White House making when it first defended Trent Lott and then threw him over when The Washington Post and the New York Times urged him to do so - the idea that this president would cave on affirmative action seemed far-fetched. Not now.

The White House insisted yesterday that there's still a week before the Jan. 16 deadline for taking sides. "That's lots of time," the president's press spokesman said. That seems unlikely to anyone who has ever employed a lawyer, who can take a week to clear his throat. Writing a brief to persuade justices of the Supreme Court is not something to be dashed off after a big lunch at the Palm on Tuesday afternoon.

Several White House sources insist that the decision has already been made, that Karl Rove calculates that the president can escape the wrath of both right and left by getting out of Dodge. The decision to send the nomination of Charles Pickering to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals back to the Senate, where it was rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate, looks like the chicken bone thrown to the conservatives. The Pickering nomination, victim of the Democratic smear machine, probably won't fly this time, either.

The president can say he tried. This time that won't be enough. This time George W. has to be the man of conviction his friends imagined they elected in the year 2000. He has to tell his political consultants to shut up and leave the room if they can't take the heat. Political consultants, like heart surgeons (if heart surgeons will forgive the analogy), are not chosen for their principles and convictions, but for their skill with knives. They are expected to keep principles and convictions, if any, to themselves. They're employed not to think heavy thoughts, but for tips on how to slice, dice and manipulate.

Voters sometimes let themselves be manipulated. But sometimes they won't. The constituents George W. must count on when the going gets tough regard ending affirmative action, restricting abortion and cutting taxes as the very reasons they worked to get him elected.

It may be that we have reached the time and place when and where we cannot talk about race. Maybe mouthing meaningless purple platitudes is the only way to stay alive. But maybe this is an opportunity for the president to use the bully pulpit to explain why he will do the right thing, and why it's the right thing. If he can't, maybe it doesn't make much difference who we elect as president.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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