JESSE JACKSON, accusing the White House of "race baiting," worries that the political climate of America is changing overnight. One moment, the American people, encouraged by President Bush, were wearing yellow ribbons to welcome the troops home.
The next moment, businessmen, supported by the president, are wearing buttons that denounce quotas, and Mr. Bush is hurling charges of racial preference at Democrats.
The Rev. Mr. Jackson says: "In the last 50 years, no American president has been quite this bold in the use of race-manipulative language to divide this country."
The catalyst for this debate is a civil rights bill sponsored by most Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.
The president denounces it as a "quota bill," and charges that Democrats are trying to use it "to grind me into the political dirt."
Bush has his own civil rights bill on the Hill which he says would not require quotas in hiring, college recruitment, or other activities.
Although the Democratic bill specifically outlaws racial quotas in hiring, Bush says that "it's a quota bill regardless of how its authors dress it up." He insists: "You can't put a sign on a pig and say it's a horse."
At a breakfast meeting with reporters, Jackson elaborated at length on his concerns about the president's political methods.
"I never thought I would see a president, one who unified the nation ... as commander-in-chief in the Gulf, take the lead, and with passion, move to divide the nation along lines of race," Jackson says. "It's a great decoy to divert people's attention away from the structural economic crisis in this country."
Jackson compares Bush's "race-bait" political tactics to those of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke of Louisiana.
"Quotas" is being used as "a code-word to incite racial fear," says Jackson, who serves as "shadow" senator for Washington, D.C., in Congress.
Jackson's strong language indicates growing concern that Bush will be able to use the quota charge in the 1992 campaign.
In 1988, candidate Bush was highly successful in capturing white Democratic voters with a commercial about Willie Horton, a black man who committed a crime while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The ad indicated that Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was soft on crime.
Reminded that Bush's popularity is near an all-time high for any president, Jackson retorts: "We had very popular presidents [during] slavery - popular, but morally wrong. Great presidents, however, have broken the mold and done what was right for America. If Truman had done a poll, he wouldn't have signed the civil rights bill of 1948. He did what was good for America."
Jackson's concerns about elevating racial tensions are shared by many Democrats, though most are not so outspoken.
House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington says: "For the president to accuse us of raising racial or other divisions in this society is incredible." He insists: "The president is incorrect; this is not a quota bill."
There's little doubt that if Bush decides to exploit the quota issue, it could potentially inflame the 1992 election.
Jackson says the debate over civil rights illustrates the growing tension between the "political center" and the "moral center" in the United States. The political center, he says, is willing to "win at all costs, even if you race-bait and divide the country."
Jackson, an ordained minister, observes: "The Bible calls that willing to gain the world and lose your soul."
The moral center speaks out against wrong, he says, even if that means losing an election.
In his usual colorful way, he claims that Republicans have won recent presidential elections by "using a volley of Scud missiles" that have created a "binge of fear" among voters. The Scuds have various names: "law and order,Willie Horton,forced busing," "welfare queen,segregation forever."
Jackson says that at the beginning of the Bush administration, many Americans "felt a sense of relief with his kinder, gentler talk."
But now they see Bush "doing things that [Ronald] Reagan would not have done. And [Bush] has more capital to do it with."
To fight back, Jackson says, "Democrats must have a battery of Patriot missiles: racial justice, gender equality, and fairness."
Jackson also takes issue with moderate Democrats like Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia who would "evade the impact of a Scud missile by putting your arms around it, saying, we're against quotas, too." Instead, you've got to "blow it away."
Jackson says Bush's quota charge merely diverts attention from the real issues, like jobs. It isn't quotas or racial hiring that is sending American jobs to countries like Mexico, South Korea, and Taiwan, he says.
It is failure to educate young Americans adequately and to invest in new factories in the United States.