Howard's Snub of Lee Atwater

STUDENTS at Howard University, a predominantly black university in Washington, D.C., were jubilant recently after they blocked the appointment of Lee Atwater to the school's board of trustees. Mr. Atwater, a white, is chairman of the Republican National Committee; he also managed the Bush presidential campaign. Far from being a triumph for black rights, however, the episode was a Pyrrhic victory for close-mindedness. Atwater says he was excited as he considered what he could bring to the university. These included a prodigious fund-raising talent and the ability to open internship and job opportunities at the RNC and in the Bush administration. No doubt Atwater - who has pledged to make the GOP more attractive to blacks and other minorities - also welcomed the chance to open a dialogue with black leaders of tomorrow.

Their actions suggest, however, that these black leaders of tomorrow are more interested in political posturing than in meaningful dialogue.

The students say they were protesting the GOP record on civil rights and, in particular, what they call Atwater's ``racist'' manipulation of the prison-furlough issue during the campaign.

Atwater denies having had a role in the Willie Horton matter. Since his appointment at the RNC, moreover, he has vowed to reach out to blacks, and he was quick to denounce the election of former Klansman David Duke to the Louisiana Legislature.

Given what could aptly be called the Republican Party's history of indifference to civil rights, the burden is on the party to show a quickened sensitivity to minority concerns. Yet Lee Atwater - along with new Housing and Urban Development secretary Jack Kemp - have volunteered to shoulder that burden. It's regrettable that the Howard students opted for rejectionist tactics, even refusing Atwater's request to put his case before the student body.

The students passed up a chance to help raise Republican consciousness, preferring to be politically ``correct.'' Atwater says he is undaunted in his hope to broaden the GOP tent. If so, he's more tolerant than student members of a movement that has long decried racial intolerance.

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