For one brief moment last week, President George W. Bush and I actually agreed on something. Well, sort of.
Shortly after the Supreme Court handed down a split decision in two cases involving affirmative action at the University of Michigan, the White House issued a statement saying that the president "applauded" the court's action.
That was surprising, since the White House had submitted a brief urging the court to declare the university's admission plans unconstitutional. The brief had argued that "regardless of how the university's interest in diversity is defined, the law school's admissions policy is not narrowly tailored to achieve any conceivable compelling interest."
Yet, according to the statement, Bush was pleased that the court had voted, 5-4, to uphold the law school's system of screening applicants even if it rejected, by a vote of 6-3, the system employed to screen undergraduates.
In what People for the American Way described as a "decision-day conversion," Bush praised the "careful balance" reflected by the pair of decisions.
In a radio address to the nation delivered in January before the court heard arguments in the case, the president said, "At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race."
None of the lower courts that had ruled in the Michigan cases had held that the programs used quotas, yet Bush employed the emotionally charged word in prejudging the case for the benefit of the conservative core of his constitu- ency.
His decision-day conversion was a classic case of having it both ways.
As for me, I was grateful that affirmative action sur vived at all, thanks to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who cast the swing vote in the 5-4 decision.
The night before the deci sion was handed down, I at tended a social gathering honoring Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan. She told the guests she was crossing her fingers that the court would uphold the principle of affirmative action, even if it rejected Michigan's approach. So, she, too, was pleased by the outcome.
Coleman said she hoped that diversity on college campuses would be in full flower by 2028, but that the record so far doesn't point in that direction. She said U.S. primary and secondary schools today are more segregated than at any time since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that so-called "separate but equal" schools were unconstitutional.
Because blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans mainly occupy America's poorest neighborhoods with the lowest tax bases, their schools are, in fact, separate but unequal. The court's decision was the least the country could do to level the playing field.
The next test of Bush's commitment to affirmative action will come when a Supreme Court vacancy occurs. The leading nominee-in-waiting is Alberto Gonzales, a Hispanic who serves as Bush's White House counsel.
Right-wing critics say Gonzales is not conservative enough, especially on civil rights and abortion. But with Hispanics now comprising the nation's single largest minority group, Bush probably won't pass up the political benefits of appointing the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice just to appease the regressives in his party.
Contrast Bush's waffling on affirmative to the forthright view expressed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich in an appearance last Sunday with others positioning themselves to run for the Democratic nomination for president. Asked what he would do as president if the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, Kucinich said he would issue a series of executive orders restoring the practice not just in higher education, but in hiring, housing and other areas where minorities face discrimination.
Kucinich has not yet decided whether to enter the presidential race.
If he does, most experts would rate his chances of gaining the nomination as infinitesimal. More likely, he will have to defend his congressional seat next November.
Merely exploring a possible presidential candidacy has brought Kucinich unprecedented media attention. His stands against the war and for affirmative action no doubt have offended many in his mostly white, moderately conservative city and suburban West Side district and may spur a challenge for his congressional seat from a prominent Republican or fellow Democrat running as an independent.
For a politician, telling it like it is can be a fine thing unless you tell voters what they don't want to hear.
Brazaitis, formerly a Plain Dealer senior editor, is a Washington columnist.
© 2003 The Plain Dealer