In the solemn rotunda housing America’s most revered documents of nationhood, President Clinton defended affirmative action with pride and passion Wednesday and countered its critics with a slogan: “Mend it, but don’t end it.”
Much to the delight of civil rights activists, women’s groups and Democratic liberals, Clinton said affirmative action “has been good for America” and is not responsible for the economic distress suffered by the nation’s middle class.
While promising to fight for its preservation as a tool to battle discrimination, Clinton warned that a recent Supreme Court ruling will force stricter new limits on the way affirmative action is applied.
He directed federal agencies to comply with the decision and to apply four standards to affirmative action programs: no quotas, no reverse discrimination, no preferences for unqualified Americans, and an end to the program once it achieves its goal.
Along this line, he decided to divert some funds, now set aside exclusively for minorities and women with government contracts, to companies that locate in economically distressed areas, without regard to whether women or minorities own them. Details of this plan remain to be worked out.
“Affirmative action has not always been perfect, and affirmative action should not go on forever,” Clinton said - but the evidence “suggests, indeed screams” there is still a need to fight discrimination in America.
In this key political speech, Clinton tilted more toward the traditional Democratic base than independent middle-class voters he hopes to win over.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been pondering a third-party race for president next year, gave the speech high marks. “I thought this was one of his finest hours as a leader of the country,” Jackson said. The president had briefed him on the address Tuesday night.
Clinton took a political risk with his strong endorsement of affirmative action, ensuring it will remain a major issue for Republicans in the 1996 presidential race.
Early this year, he was talking of softening it dramatically to reach out to disaffected middle-class voters, many of whom feel it has outlived its usefulness.
But many Republicans in Congress want to roll back affirmative action. “Instead of clarity, the president has chosen confusion,” said Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., the Senate Majority leader and front-runner for the GOP nomination. He said he would introduce legislation next week to end such preferences that help minorities and women advance in the work force.
California Gov. Pete Wilson, also a Republican presidential candidate, called Clinton’s speech a disservice and said it tended to “tribalize” America.
The White House countered that the GOP is using affirmative action as a “wedge issue” to attract voters, particularly the so-called “angry white male.”
“It is simply wrong to play politics with the issue of affirmative action and divide our country at a time when, if we’re really going to change things, we have to be united,” Clinton said.
In a 97-page review of affirmative action programs that took nearly six months, the administration found little evidence of reverse discrimination against white males in America.
Most of the Justice Department’s affirmative action suits affect women and minorities “because the vast majority of discrimination in America is discrimination against them,” the president said.
He spoke at the National Archives Building. Behind him were the original Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In the audience was a carefully selected group of activists and leaders from religious, civil rights, women’s rights and other groups.
The president told stories of a segregated South from his days as a youth in Hope, Ark., where the only unpaved street in the town went into the black neighborhood, where the blacks always sat in the balcony of the movie theater.
“I have had experience with affirmative action, nearly 20 years of it now, and I know it works,” he said.
By closing gaps in economic opportunity, it has benefited all society, Clinton said, adding that corporate leaders told him that diversity has made their firms stronger.
“We should reaffirm the principles of affirmative action and fix the practices. We should have a simple slogan: Mend it, but don’t end it.”
The Supreme Court ruled June 29 that affirmative action programs must meet a standard of “strict scrutiny” and address specific acts of past discrimination. Clinton embraced the ruling, but insisted it did not wipe out affirmative action.
The president said his new policy will crack down on abuses of affirmative action programs, particularly the government set-aside programs in which federal contracts are awarded to companies owned by minorities and women.
The crackdown will apply to so-called “front companies” with a minority or woman executive, but which really are owned by another company that would otherwise not qualify for the set-aside. Also, companies that have been receiving the contract preference can’t expect to get it forever, he said.
Vice President Al Gore will develop the new set-aside program designed to help firms that locate in an economically distressed community win federal contracts.
“We want to make our procurement system more responsive to people in these areas that need help,” the president said.
This sidebar appeared with the story: What they said “One of his finest hours as a leader of the country.” i -Jesse Jackson “While this issue can be used to divide, the president has called on all Americans to come together on behalf of a stronger nation.” - Sen. Carol Mosley-Braun, D-Ill. Clinton “is committed to solving the problem of discrimination in America by extending unfair advantage to even more people.” - Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas “The real issue here isn’t preferences for the unqualified, which virtually every American opposes, but preferences for the ‘less qualified’ versus those who are ‘more qualified.”’ - Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kans.