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President Clinton Holds Oval Office Meeting on Race in America With Prominent Conservatives

December 20, 1997

President Clinton Holds Oval Office Meeting on Race in America With Prominent Conservatives From Academic and Political CirclesBy SONYA ROSS

WASHINGTON _ President Clinton and a group of prominent conservatives sat down Friday to talk about race in America and found little common ground on the contentious issue of affirmative action.

Clinton scheduled the Oval Office meeting with nine conservatives from academic and political circles after complaints that his racial dialogue lacks divergent voices.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a member of Clinton’s racial advisory board, said he would press to ensure conservatives have leading roles in Clinton’s dialogue.

``It is my hope this is just step one, that these voices would continue not only to be included, but to take leadership,″ Kean said.

For their part, the conservatives said they came away confident they will have a larger role in the president’s initiative.

``If the president of the United States called on me, I think I have a duty to be available,″ said Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who led the drive to repeal California’s affirmative action programs in higher education.

Connerly, however, asked that Clinton extend his race advisory board beyond one year _ and remove the affirmative action issue from its purview, saying its work has been ``polluted by the perception that they are not a balanced board.″

``It’s unrealistic _ given the fumbling of the ball that’s occurred in the first seven months _ to expect they can get anywhere substantively in the five months that remain,″ Connerly said.

Still, he admitted after the meeting that Clinton had charmed him and could, through courageous leadership, ``put himself in the league with Lincoln and Kennedy″ on racial matters.

``He probably understands race like no other president, living or dead, understands it,″ Connerly said of Clinton.

During the 1 1/2-hour session, Clinton asked his guests to explain what they perceive affirmative action to be, and what they would replace it with if it were abolished.

He began by asking, ``Do you believe that race still matters in America, and is still a problem in some ways?″

What followed was a debate in anecdotal, hypothetical terms, with Clinton and Vice President Al Gore asking the conservatives how they would handle specific racial situations, such as that of a small-town police chief who must combat drugs with limited resources and resorts to stopping minorities while driving.

``That’s what this whole profiling is about,″ Clinton argued. ``That’s a race-based affirmative action program.″

``And those of us who oppose race preferences when they benefit groups are also opposed to them when they harm groups,″ said conservative commentator Linda Chavez.

Thaddeus Garrett, a lifelong Republican and past board chairman of predominantly black Howard University, objected to the focus on affirmative action, saying it obscures a much-needed airing of other issues, such as police brutality. He urged the Republican Party to ``engage itself more″ in the discussion.

``We must, on this issue particularly, while we may oppose him on others, work with this president for the good of the country,″ Garrett said. ``Even those of us who are the most vociferous opponents of affirmative action have agreed that we’ve got to start working on the root causes of racism.″

Others attending the meeting were Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., former Peace Corps director Elaine Chao, former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin and scholars Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom.

Jack Kemp, the former GOP vice presidential candidate, skipped the meeting because it was not open to the public. ``You can’t have a national dialogue on race behind closed doors,″ said Kemp spokesman Christian Pinkston.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the meeting was not conducive to ``full-scale lights, camera, action.″

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