The schedule called for President Clinton to meet with his advisory board on race for an hour. But as they sat around a table in the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel last week, no one seemed quite sure what to say or do.
Clinton spoke briefly and extemporaneously, throwing out a few suggestions, such as asking the board to compile a compendium of efforts around the country to foster racial healing. A few board members commented on what they had seen in their travels. And then, after 45 minutes, when no one else spoke up, Clinton departed.
Nearly four months after Clinton launched his ambitious campaign to improve race relations in the post-civil rights era, many involved in the effort agree that the initiative is off track, foundering in uncertainty about what its mission should be and struggling to translate the president’s broad goals into concrete results.
Already a third of the way into the year allotted for the project, the race board so far has accomplished little other than assembling a staff and hearing a few presentations on demographics and attitude surveys.
Individual board members have attended many events, but collectively they have met just twice and the first presidential town-hall meeting on race will not take place until December, halfway through the commission’s life.
White House officials do not want to characterize Clinton as frustrated by the pace, but they make clear he is itching for more action and plans to get more personally involved. “It’s fair to say that he’s a little anxious,” said one aide. “He wants to play a more active role. He wants things done.”
From their perspective, some board members share the concern. They acknowledge getting off to a slow start, but attribute that partly to the bureaucratic task of setting up an organization from scratch. Their open-ended mandate has made it difficult to focus, they say, and open-meeting laws have made it tough for them to hold frank discussions with each other on such an incendiary topic.
“I think the criticism is legitimate,” said board member Angela E. Oh, a Los Angeles attorney. “I have the same anxiety that other folks are expressing. From the very beginning a year was too short, I thought. We as a board have not acted in a very defined way.”
As a creature of the president, and not an independent commission, the members are watching Clinton closely for clues on how to proceed.
“I look to the president as the source of what focus he wants to take with this,” Oh said. “He is clear in wanting to put this issue on the table and look for appropriate ways for the federal government to address these issues, but he doesn’t have a particular program that he’s pushing or a particular policy that he wants advice on.”
“If we were on our own,” added another member, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, “we’d do it a little differently, I think. We’re the president’s commission and therefore we’re reluctant to move without a lot of guidance from the White House through the staff. I hope his staff is as committed as he is.”