WASHINGTON -- In contemporary American politics, as in earlier forms of vaudeville, it helps to have had an easy act to follow. Gerald Reynolds certainly did.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' new chairman follows Mary Frances Berry, whose seedy career -- 24 years on the commission, 11 of them as chairman -- mixed tawdry peculation, boorish behavior and absurd rhetoric. Because Reynolds represents such a bracing change, it is tempting to just enjoy the new 6-to-2 conservative ascendancy on the commission and forgo asking a pertinent question: Why not retire the commission?
Its $9 million budget -- about 60 employees and six field offices -- is, as Washington reckons these things, negligible. So even Berry's flamboyant mismanagement of it -- several Government Accountability Office reports have said federal guidelines were ignored during her tenure; another report is coming -- was small beer, even when including the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year paid to the public relations firm that mediated her relations with the media. But although the monetary savings from closing the commission would be small, two prudential reasons for doing so are large.
One is that someday Democrats will again control the executive branch and may again stock the commission with extremists -- Berry celebrated Communist China's educational system in 1977, when she was assistant secretary of education; she made unsubstantiated charges of vast ``disenfranchisement" of Florida voters in 2000 -- from the wilder shores of racial politics. The second reason for terminating the commission is that civil rights rhetoric has become a crashing bore and, worse, a cause of confusion: Almost everything designated a ``civil rights'' problem isn't.
The commission has no enforcement powers, only the power to be, Reynolds says, a ``bully pulpit.'' And if someone must be preaching from it, by all means let it be Reynolds. Born in the South Bronx, the son of a New York City policeman, he is no stranger to the moral muggings routinely administered to African-American conservatives. But he says, ``If you think I'm conservative, you should come with me to a black barbershop. I'm usually the most liberal person there,'' where cultural conservatism -- on crime, welfare, abortion, schools -- flourishes.