AS the Clinton administration pushes for as stress-free a Supreme Court confirmation as possible, the White House is working to redeem itself on another appointment: leadership of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
In short, Sheldon Hackney's supporters don't want him "Guiniered." That is, they are trying to make the case for Dr. Hackney before the opposition has irreparably demonized him and forced the president to pull his name before Senate hearings, as happened with Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier.
But the conservatives smelled an opportunity early with Hackney, and the White House faces an uphill battle.
Hackney's opponents raise two key incidents they say place the University of Pennsylvania president "out of the mainstream" and show him to be a maven of "political correctness." One is the university's now-infamous "water buffalo" episode, in which a white student was accused of violating the university's speech code when he shouted the perceived epithet at noisy black women students. He is also accused of reacting weakly when black students confiscated almost all 14,000 copies of a campus newspaper run ning a column they found offensive.
"There will be opposition" to Hackney's nomination, acknowledges Howard Paster, the White House liaison to Congress. "But struggle is too strong a word."
In the aftermath of the Guinier debacle, Hackney has been speeding up courtesy calls in the Senate; he has already met with one-third of the members. But there is an awkward element for his supporters: His nomination has not yet been formally sent to the Senate committee that will hold hearings, Labor and Human Resources. The White House says it will come this week.
Until the nomination is formal, some supporters are reluctant to push seriously. And he is not speaking to the press - customary for high-level nominees. So, as with Ms. Guinier, the opposition has had free rein to define him, and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page is leading the charge, calling him "one of the academic elites who have made `political correctness' the dominant ethic on American campuses."
Conservative activists are also deep into "opposition research," scrutinizing his record and writings.
`I AM concerned about his lack of enthusiasm for protecting freedom of speech at Penn," says Bob Knight of the Family Research Council. "He protects speech if it is from the extreme radical left, but not if it is from conservatives.... To be appointed the nation's leading scholar is a frightening prospect."
The council plans to use "alternative" media - such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and Christian radio and TV - to spread its views on Hackney. The politically potent Christian Coalition is also speaking out against him. The NEH dispenses grant money to academia, and Hackney's foes worry that he will impose a "politically correct" (read: liberal) litmus test on grantees.
Conservatives have catalogued other Hackney "offenses": He supported controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; defended a visit to Penn by black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan; and disciplined a popular professor for referring to blacks and Jews as "ex-slaves."
A Penn spokeswoman says the Journal's June 9 editorial contains 11 errors. For example, in the case of the disciplined professor, she says, it was his faculty peers who decided the professor needed "sensitivity training."
The spokeswoman also says Hackney statements on the water buffalo incident have not been accurately quoted. "He said: `Diversity and open expression seem to be in conflict,' " says Barbara Beck, emphasizing "seem to be." And, she adds, Hackney's opponents have conveniently ignored the next part of his statement: "There can be no compromise regarding the First Amendment right of an independent publication to express whatever it chooses."
Hackney's academic supporters, many not used to the fray of Washington politics, have begun writing letters to senators in support of his nomination. Larry Silver, president of the College Art Association, cites in a letter Hackney's "distinguished career" as a scholar in the humanities, particularly in American history, and as a university administrator.
John Hammer, director of the National Humanities Alliance, cites an "outpouring of support" from the academic community. In an unusual move, the board of the NHA's 76 member organizations has formally supported Hackney's nomination. Mr. Hammer, who has followed the nomination carefully, says the White House is being attentive to the Hackney controversy.
Hackney supporters also point to a recent New York Times editorial favoring his nomination - important, in contrast to the paper's opposition to Guinier. On Capitol Hill, one Senate Democratic aide argues that "Hackney is his own best defense," thus, the recent flurry of meetings with senators.
"Getting him confirmed will take some work," the aide says. "But once he gets to his hearings, this nice, smart, decent man will win this battle in the culture wars."