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Picking His Battles Carefully By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 22, 2003

"INSULTINGLY STUPID" and "offensive" were two of the choicer descriptions a conservative friend of mine had back in December upon reading President George W. Bush’s declaration in support of Kwanzaa. The president described the faux afro-centric holiday, the socialist-themed creation of 60s radicalism, as promoting "mutual understanding and respect."

My friend was outraged, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t share her disgust.

I was more amused—and optimistic. Bush’s playing along and refusing to spark an unwinnable debate on Kwanzaa was a sign of political wisdom, not lack of backbone, I argued. The president simply realized that political capital is a finite commodity, especially on matters of race. He was saving his strength for bigger and more important battles to come, rather than squandering it on symbols.

Symbols are important, my friend countered. If Bush wouldn’t stand up against the patently absurd, how could he ever be counted on to make the right decision on serious issues of racial politics?

It was a fair question—until last week.

Then Bush announced, in a nationally televised address, that his administration would play a role in the two affirmative-action cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the University of Michigan’s racial-preferences racket. Such programs, he thundered, "are divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution."

So much for the claim that this president was either a coward or a panderer on racial issues.

While presidential administrations typically file amicus curiae briefs on matters of national import, Bush was under no obligation to weigh in on the Michigan cases one way or the other. Given the inherent controversy of the preferences debate, many predicted the White House—not wanting to create any distractions from the war effort—would simply take a pass.

Were Bush a coward, that’s precisely what he would have done. Were he a panderer, he would have instructed his solicitor general to file a brief in defense of Michigan’s admissions program, which treats students differently depending on their color. That’s what the last administration, which did pander on race and many other issues, would have done.

Instead, Bush took a bold step and delivered a political masterstroke, defending "diversity"—that is, the idea that all races should be included in all facets of American society—but insisting that government and the institutions it supports treat all people equally, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

It’s a perfectly logical position—the one, in fact, put forth by Martin Luther King Jr. four decades ago—but one that the modern-day Ethnic Grievance Industry (aka "civil-rights leaders") has turned on its head. For the peddlers of racial discontent, any policy that fails to label, reward and ultimately demean people on the basis of skin tone is presumably racist, or at least racially insensitive.

That’s why the president’s decision has drawn the predictable opprobrium from the predictable sources. Jesse Jackson promptly denounced Bush as "the most anti-civil rights president in 50 years." Al Sharpton, speaking at an MLK Day event, said that ending discriminatory practices in college admissions would "rob King’s children of higher education."

But when it comes to Bush, that race-baiting line of attack is unlikely to get much traction.

How can Bush be some sort of crypto-segregationist when his administration looks more like America than Bill Clinton’s ever did? How can the EGI claim that his decision was racially insensitive when some of the nation’s highest-ranking African-American officials, including Education Secretary Rod Paige and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, support it? Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, who dissents on Bush’s affirmative-action policy, insists that the president is "absolutely committed to diversity."

In hindsight, Bush’s refusal to defend Tent Lott during the former Senate Majority Leader’s implosion a month ago seems all the more prescient. The Republicans didn’t need a racially tone-deaf and tainted Lott weighing them down as they pushed forward into this treacherous political territory. Nor could they risk the prospect of Lott, eager to win back the good graces of the EGI, ambushing them with remarks like "I’m for affirmative action and I’ve practiced it," which he infamously pleaded on BET in the midst of his self-inflicted crisis.

When Bush dropped Lott, he made it clear that his was an administration that wouldn’t burn political capital on the petty causes.

Which brings us back to Kwanzaa. The president signs countless proclamations every year, commemorating all sorts of obscure occasions, from National American Indian Heritage Month to the Year of Clean Water, to National Fishing and Boating Week and Save Your Vision Week. To single out Kwanzaa from a notoriously indiscriminate process of doling out honors would have given far more comfort to its radical champions than a meaningless and perfunctory acknowledgment. The Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world would have howled, and Bush would have had to waste time and energy defending himself from their spurious charges of bigotry rather than pushing his agenda.

Instead, Bush waited until precisely the right moment to elicit those inevitable howls—so that defending against them would be part and parcel of that agenda: a race-blind America. He left the politically correct squabbles over little things for his opponents, and saved his political capital for what really matters—the most important civil-rights battle in a quarter-century.

Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.

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