Bill Clinton is having a coming-out party this week. After months spent out of the spotlight, the former president can't stand it any longer. So he's throwing himself a big shindig in Harlem to formally open his post-presidential offices, inviting former Cabinet members and staff, as well as other New York dignitaries. He wants attention, and you can bet he'll get it. Not that he didn't get plenty of notice just after he left office, what with all the stories about presidential pardons for tax cheats and drug dealers.
But this time, he wants to do it up right -- to become a latter-day Jimmy Carter, taking on important issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. According to the former president's confidants, Clinton will devote himself to combating AIDS in the developing world and promoting racial harmony here at home.
They are laudable, if surprising, choices for Bill Clinton. When it comes to racial harmony, Clinton's record on that issue is mixed, at best. Not that Bill Clinton didn't care deeply about race relations. He did. It's just that he went about trying to improve racial attitudes in a decidedly biased fashion.
Despite vowing to engage in a national "dialogue on race" in his first term, Clinton proceeded instead to a harangue that might better have been dubbed "blame whitey." Like many white Southern liberals who lived through the civil rights era, Clinton ascribes to the notion of collective guilt. If Bull Connor, George Wallace, and Arkansas' own Orval Faubes violated the civil rights of countless African-Americans, then all whites should have to pay for these sins -- forever. How else can you explain Clinton's civil rights enforcement policies?
In the employment arena, Clinton pushed for double standards, or to lower standards, if necessary to ensure proportionate numbers of minorities on the payroll. In one case in New York, Clinton's Department of Justice argued that it was legal to redesign a police department test so that fewer whites and more black applicants would pass. In education, the Clinton administration argued that school districts could exclude white and Asian students from public schools that catered to academically gifted students, and that colleges and universities could apply lower standards for admission to black and Hispanic applicants. In voting, the Clinton crew wanted political jurisdiction boundaries drawn so that minorities could be guaranteed to elect minority representatives.
None of these measures does much to foster racial harmony. Instead, they continue the unfortunate legacy of race-conscious policies that help divide, rather than unite people.
Now that Bill Clinton is back in private life, maybe he should take on the role of defending these policies by debating them in public forums around the country. I'd love the chance to go one-on-one with Clinton to debate the pros and cons of racial preferences, quotas, and set-asides -- all policies he endorsed (in action, if not in words) as president.
The man who promised to mend affirmative action did nothing of the sort when he had the chance. I'd like to hear why not. I'd like to know how he thinks that lowering academic or employment standards actually helps blacks and Hispanics? I'd like to understand why it's appropriate to encourage minority voters to cast their ballots on racial grounds but then (properly, in my view) condemn white voters who refuse to vote for a black or Hispanic candidate. I want to know if Bill Clinton believes promoting racial or ethnic diversity should be a higher value than treating people the same, regardless of skin color.
As a former president, Bill Clinton surely doesn't need to debate anyone. He's got a ready audience whenever he wants. But the advantage of a debate is that you attract people on both sides of an issue. If Clinton is as a good a debater as his reputation suggests, maybe he'd win over converts to his position. But I'm betting that he's never had to answer tough questions or be challenged to defend his own policies. Who knows, we might even find some common ground. Now that would be promoting real racial harmony.