If the first casualty of war is truth, then the first casualty of the debate over affirmative action is language. By way of evidence, I submit the statement of Mark Rosenbaum, a civil rights lawyer who hailed a recent pro-affirmative action judicial decision in California: "This decision . . . defeats the efforts to take government out of the business of eliminating discrimination." In other words, it keeps government in the business of using discrimination to battle discrimination.
Whatever its virtues, affirmative action has always been plagued by a reluctance to use the English language as God, Shakespeare and Mr. Traeger, my high school English teacher, intended. The fact is that about the only way you can ensure that certain minorities get into, say, the California university system in anything approaching their proportion of the general population is to ensure that others are not admitted. This is discrimination, and a lot of people - in fact, a majority of Californians in the last election - said they did not like it one bit.
This reluctance, this downright inability to speak plainly, plagues all sorts of affirmative action programs and results in some low comedy. Just the other day, President Bill Clinton realized at the 11th hour that his new Cabinet lacked a Hispanic. Bill Richardson, of New Mexico, had just been named U.N. ambassador, but that's not quite a Cabinet post. So, at a meeting that lasted until after midnight and into the day when Clinton was scheduled to announce his appointments, the president got a bright idea: Federico Pena for energy secretary. Does Pena know anything about Energy or energy? Not really. Does he know anything much about being a Cabinet secretary? Here again the answer is not much. He has been the secretary of transportation and was scheduled to leave the administration without, as far as anyone could tell, the White House expressing much regret. In fact, Pena is best remembered for scurrying down to Florida to praise Valujet after one of its planes plunged into the Everglades. For a moment, you would have thought he represented the airline industry and not - or not also - you and me. The president now has a Cabinet with the requisite everythings - although it is a bit short of talent. …