WASHINGTON — THE debate over a free-trade treaty with Mexico turned a bit mean this week - with President Bush casting the first stone. America's labor unions were on the receiving end.
At a commencement address at Hampton University in Virginia, the president accused opponents of free trade of resorting to ``slurs against our Mexican neighbors.'' He said:
``I can think of no more revealing contrast between a free-enterprise view of the human community and the protectionist view. Prejudice is usually nothing more than a breed of cowardice.''
Mr. Bush didn't offer any evidence. But White House officials later reportedly said he was referring to an AFL-CIO advertisement that ran April 29 in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
The union ad, headlined ``BEWARE! Fast Track Could Be Hazardous To Your Health,'' says: ``Mexican border towns like Matamoros and Juarez have virtually no sewage facilities.... With no treatment facilities, health problems abound on both sides of the border.''
The health problems include Hepatitis A, which the union ad claims is contracted by 90 percent of the people in nearby San Elizario, Texas, by the time they are 30. It notes that Mexican produce for export ``may be irrigated with polluted water, including raw sewage.''
House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri rejected Bush's criticism of the union. He accused Bush of exploiting racial division.
Thomas Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, called Bush's criticism of the union ``bizarre.''
Mr. Donahue says the president has no room to call the AFL-CIO racist. He recalls that it was Bush ``who voted against the 1964 civil rights act, who was elected to the White House at least partly on the basis of the Willie Horton commercials, and whose administration just within the past month reportedly lent itself to the sabotage of a compromise on the 1990 civil rights act, which this same president had vetoed.''
The president ``has joined the thought police of the politically correct movement'' by claiming it is racist to point to public health problems along the border, Donahue says.