Conservative Shock Troops Take On Racial Preferences

How three little-known advocates do daily battle in Washington's political trenches.

They stood out as the campus anomalies of their day. In the era of peace signs and love-ins, they aimed to topple diversity programs and other mainstays of their liberal contemporaries. Later, they rallied around Ronald Reagan and cheered Clarence Thomas's rise to the US Supreme Court. Now they've become part of the small coterie of Washington insiders who devote their days to ending affirmative action. Clint Bolick, Mike McDonald, and Roger Clegg are three of the little-known leaders in the budding war on racial preferences. While others have received greater attention, these three typify the activists who are working behind the scenes to bring about a fundamental shift in how Americans think about race - one of the most sensitive issues of the 1990s. Mr. McDonald litigates groundbreaking lawsuits. Mr. Clegg articulates the conservative agenda as a spokesman and writer. Mr. Bolick does both, and he prods congressional Republicans to take up the cause. Together they work to end programs, laws, and ideas they believe are discriminatory. The three are becoming more visible as the debate on affirmative action continues to make headlines.

The fading of the crisis over President Clinton's appointment of Bill Lann Lee as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division still leaves larger matters unresolved. In Congress, major legislation appears unlikely next year, but Mr. Bolick and others will continue to push the issue.

The anti-affirmative-action cause is a political hot potato, even among Republicans, who don't want to be seen as racist.

Indeed, critics of Bolick, Clegg, and McDonald sometimes mention their names in the same sentence with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke - hinting, but not saying, that they harbor racist attitudes. But they continue their struggle - not because they are angry white males, they say - but because they are passionate about their libertarian beliefs and their opposition to the policies that sprang out of the civil rights movement.

A capital operator BOLICK the most prominent of the three, backs numerous libertarian policies as litigation director at the Institute for Justice, a conservative Washington think tank.

But the former Reagan administration official is best known for his all-out attack on affirmative action, a campaign that has brought the wrath of progressives. He was instrumental in blocking Lani Guinier from getting the top civil rights job at the Justice Department in 1993. An article he wrote opposing her appointment was headlined "Clinton's Quota Queens." Then he flagged Mr. Lee's appointment this year, drawing fire from rivals who say he misrepresented Lee's views. Bolick identifies 1978 as a seminal year. A summer intern in Sen. Orrin Hatch's office, he was drawn to the plight of Allan Bakke, a white student who applied to the University of California at Davis.

Mr. Bakke was denied admission and then sued the school over its racial set-aside program. His case went to the US Supreme Court, and the ruling that he should be admitted became a seminal one, restricting the quota system. Viewing Bakke as a modern-day Rosa Parks, Bolick lauded the decision. He went on to study at UC Davis law school and drew the ire of fellow students for his opinions.

"If you expressed nonconventional views," he recalls, "you would be called a fascist or a racist." A stocky man, Bolick's cheerful demeanor belies a reputation as one of the capital's more-shrewd operatives. He laughs, heartily and often, but the occasional steely-eyed look suggests Bolick's jovial persona may not be his only face. During an interview, he avoided elaboration on why he went to UC Davis, asserting that his choice came down to climate, not curiosity at seeing the post-Bakke campus firsthand.

Being white is "so utterly irrelevant to the way I think of myself," Bolick says. Race-based remedies are a "purely cosmetic approach to equality," he declares. Unlike with McDonald and Clegg, Bolick's responses to broad, highly charged questions come with machine-like speed.

"I don't know," he chuckles, when asked about his quick-fire comments. "I'm just more glib." Man With a Brief McDONALD has the least political experience of the three. In the 1980 presidential campaign, he "did the phone banks and all that nonsense" for Reagan, he says. In 1988, he co-founded the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), a nonprofit legal group. The group hit its stride last year when it succeeded in striking down a University of Texas affirmative-action program.

CIR scored again when the Supreme Court decided against hearing a challenge to California's Proposition 209. The group is now representing a white student denied admission to the University of Michigan in another high-profile suit. A small, solemn man, McDonald quotes Orwell, Voltaire, and Wilde. He speaks French and Italian and is interviewing Mario Luzi, an Italian poet, in pursuing a PhD in romance languages. But ideology is never far from his thoughts. "All the people who prattle on about multiculturalism very rarely take the time to learn about another culture because it's hard work," he says. As one of just a few vocal conservatives at George Washington University law school, he was ostracized for columns he wrote on race and abortion, he says. And while he never backed down, the experience left an indelible mark. "There were people that I never met who hated me and made this fact known," McDonald recalls, his voice firm but his eyes avoiding direct contact. The experience strengthened his belief that diversity should be defined as valuing a variety of ideas, not different skin colors. "Multiculturalism is just people who look different but think the same," he says. He also wants to expose what he sees as the "filthy lies" of governments, universities, and other American institutions regarding their use of race in admissions and hiring. He asserts that while the institutions say race is just one of many factors, it is in fact an overriding element.

Before CIR's victory in the Texas case, he says, "all of the administrators could comfortably lean back and mumble the usual obfuscations about race. We dig out the facts and then we say, 'Are you for this or are you against this?' " The Lone Crusader Roger Clegg seems to be the archetypal Republican. He studied law at Yale, campaigned for the GOP in the 1980 elections, and held key posts in the Bush and Reagan administrations. He is dressed in a sharp blue suit.

But his work as general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity would raise a Democratic eyebrow or two. In recent weeks, he was a prime mover in the brass-knuckle campaign against the Lee nomination.

Clegg first questioned racial policy growing up in New Orleans, when he was horrified by the turmoil wrought by busing.

He devoured the writings of William Buckley and fondly recalls a law-school course taught by Robert Bork. He became attracted to civil rights issues when he saw the dearth of conservatives speaking out on them. Clegg is the only one of the three who believes he may have experienced racial discrimination. The incident occurred when a friend told him that white males need not apply for an academic post.

"It's not like it was a shock," he says with a tight face.

He is motivated not by personal vendetta, he says, but by a desire to help working-class whites who are passed over for police jobs and other opportunities. Sitting beneath a poster of Dirty Harry, Clegg also says there's "heroism" in a cause that so few are willing to take up.

"One of the things that's always appealed to me about conservatism is its individualism. You make up your own mind about what's right, and you follow that. Sometimes you're going to be alone," he says.

Counterpoint NOT surprisingly, traditional civil rights leaders do not embrace Bolick, McDonald, and Clegg. Theodore Shaw, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, makes a point of not calling the three men racists. But he doesn't rule it out either.

Among other things, he takes issue with the sarcastic tone of CIR's literature, which he calls "derisive" and "nasty." But the three men should be judged by their actions, not their intentions, Mr. Shaw says."They are wrong because race still matters," he asserts. "This is still a society where peoples' lives and opportunities are affected at the moment of birth by race. "They might want to wish it doesn't matter but it does," he says. "And at the end of the day, they are advocating a harmful agenda."

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