Archive for Sunday, January 7, 2001

Bush cabinet looks but may not sound like America

January 7, 2001


— President-elect Bush has named his Cabinet, and it certainly looks like America. That doesn't mean it sounds like America, though. Bush has ridden a new wave in these appointments, called multicultural conservatism. Exactly what it means for America remains to be seen.

Bush's three final choices Tuesday were a Hispanic woman, a Japanese-American man and an Arab-American man. In all, out of 14 nominations, there are two black men, three white women, one Asian-American man, a Hispanic man and a Hispanic woman. All that, plus such major White House appointments as a black woman as national security adviser and a Hispanic man as general counsel.

The broad array of faces would seem to fulfill Bush's early promises to reach out to all and to make the GOP a more enveloping party. They'd also seem to reflect an acceptance of the popular thinking that, if you bring into your circle people from different backgrounds, you'll get a broader range of perspectives.

But Bush has turned the convention around. He picked faces that look different, all right. But most bring views just like his own or like those of big business, the Christian right and others whom he wants to reassure. What the different faces do not guarantee is representation of their own ethnic groups.

Take the labor secretary nominee, Linda Chavez. She may be the daughter of a Hispanic father. But her views as Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, the most prominent Latino advocacy group, put it are "pretty far outside the mainstream of the Latino community."

Of course it's always been silly and demeaning to assume that, simply because you're black or brown or female, you'll think in lockstep. Still, there's been enough truth to justify some stereotyping: There is, after all, a mainstream.

The mainstream black view, for example, remains evident enough. A University of Chicago poll released in late December found that 92 percent of blacks believe Bush does not represent their interests.

This opinion is not likely to be changed by the Cabinet nominations. It is no small thing that Bush proposes the first black secretary of state, Colin Powell. Or that, in naming Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser, he has placed two African-Americans in charge of national security. Still, these appointments won't mollify fears raised by the nomination as attorney general of John Ashcroft he of the honorary Bob Jones University degree and the grossly unfair slurring of an esteemed black judge from Missouri.

In other words, as conservatives have long correctly noted, skin color isn't everything. Your talent, views, principles and record are what count. And, as Ronald Waters, University of Maryland political scientist says, "It is now possible to get people who are diverse but who support whatever ideology you wish."

Indeed, conservatism among those previously unlikely to be is now quite faddish. Take the latest star on the black lecture circuit, a 32-year-old Berkeley professor named John McWhorter whose new book is called, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America." McWhorter has crowds across America stirring uncomfortably across America as he speaks of "a cult of victimology." And soon to come is a book that documents it all: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America." Its author, Angela Dillard, notes an emerging political force among the growing number of members of various minority groups who are also conservatives.

Dillard says such combinations remain an awkward and controversial state. But they seem to me to promise more buzz than pain. Clever anti-feminist women, brainy conservative blacks: These are the darlings of our PC-allergic society.

I'm inclined to agree with Manning Marable, director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African-American Studies, who says Republicans want to help create a "black and brown elite, which unambiguously champions a politics that is destructive to the interests of most minority, working-class and poor people."

Still, I don't doubt what's in Bush's heart. He spoke movingly in August about how you could "close your eyes and listen" in cities like Miami, San Antonio or Los Angeles," and you could "just as easily be in Santo Domingo or Santiago."

"For years our nation has debated this change some have praised it and others have resented it. By nominating me, my party has made a choice to welcome the new America."

That new America is coming, fast. Here's hoping it will be heard, as well as seen, in the new Cabinet.

Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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