Race & Ethnicity


Power Behind the Thrown Nominee: Activist With Score to Settle
Washington Post
June 6, 1993, Sunday, Final Edition
First section, page A-11

Michael Isikoff, Washington Post Staff Writer

It was barely two months ago over a casual dinner at the Jefferson Hotel that conservative activist Clint Bolick first got the tip on Lani Guinier: An academic friend had heard that President Clinton would nominate a "very radical" law professor to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

"Clint, you're going to love her," political theorist Abigail Thernstrom recalled telling Bolick, who at that point had never heard of the prospective nominee.

Those words proved more prophetic than Bolick, 35, could have imagined. A cheerful, ideologically committed former Reagan administration official, Bolick had been looking for the chance to turn the tables on the organized civil rights lobby ever since they roughed up his close friend Clarence Thomas two years ago during his nomination to the Supreme Court.

With Guinier, he smelled blood. As co-founder of the "libertarian-oriented" Institute for Justice, Bolick immediately started boning up on Guinier's law review articles, zeroing in on controversial passages that had barely been noticed by the senior White House staff. By the time Guinier's nomination was announced on April 29, Bolick recalled last week, "We were ready to hit the ground running."

The result was a successful "idea-oriented" campaign spearheaded by Bolick that, in the eyes of many participants, made a significant contribution to Guinier's demise. Working out of a small suite of offices across the street from the Justice Department, Bolick and colleague Chip Mellor became what they call "information central" for the Guinier battle, running up thousands of dollars in photocopying bills as they distributed more than 100 copies of her articles to key Senate staff aides, journalists, editorial writers and other "opinion leaders."

They also produced a drumbeat of press releases, reports and op- ed articles that portrayed the University of Pennsylvania law professor as a pro-quota, left-wing "extremist" bent on undermining democratic principles -- labels that stuck and helped frame the debate over the Guinier nomination in terms that made it difficult for her allies to recover.

While not even Bolick contends he won over moderate and liberal Democrats, who also expressed qualms about some of Guinier's views, his efforts "sent out an early warning light to some of the most troublesome aspects of Guinier's writings," said Stuart Taylor Jr., a columnist for the Legal Times who also editorialized against the nominee and received material from Bolick. While emphasizing that he did not share much of Bolick's conservative critique, Taylor said that Bolick "kept the ball rolling and kept the pressure on. . . . I think he had some influence."

In recent days, liberal interest groups, reeling from their defeat, have blasted Bolick, describing him as a right-wing zealot who distorted Guinier's views beyond recognition.

But as he returned to his office the morning after the White House announced Guinier's withdrawal, a broadly smiling Bolick could scarcely believe his good fortune. It hadn't been Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) or his old boss in the Reagan administration, former civil rights chief William Bradford Reynolds, who had described Guinier's writings as "anti- democratic" and "difficult to defend." It was President Clinton.

"It obviously feels really good because our views have been vindicated," said Bolick.

While few Democrats in Congress would share that analysis, Bolick's campaign and the fight over the Guinier nomination graphically illustrate that the bloody ideologicial wars which marked judicial and some Justice Department nominations during the Reagan and Bush administrations are almost certain to continue.

At the same time that Bolick was leading the charge against Guinier, for example, other conservative activists at Paul Weyrich's Coalitions for America also had taken up the cudgel, tapping into a vast grass-roots network in an effort to drum up opposition to the nominee. Phyllis Berry Myers, another veteran of the Thomas fight who now serves as a policy analyst for the Free Congress Foundation, said her group did "a lot of phoning and telefaxing" about Guinier and featured the case against her on National Empowerment Television, a recently formed satellite television network headed by William J. Bennett that promotes conservative causes.

But Bolick, who worked loosely with the Weyrich group in plotting strategy, says such efforts are nothing new. It was the liberal interest groups that pioneered such lobbying during the defeat of the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork and unsuccessfully during the Thomas confirmation process.

"There's no question that in terms of tactics, the playbook was written by the left and we're playing by the rules of the game established over the last 12 years," he said. "And that is focusing on crucial philosophical issues and moving swiftly to frame the debate."

A 1982 graduate of the University of California at Davis, Bolick came to Washington as an assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and forged a close friendship with then- chairman Thomas, who is the godfather to his youngest son. "He's one of my mentors," he said.

After a stint in the Reagan Justice Department, Bolick said he has devoted most of his energies to "economic liberty" causes that transcend ideological lines. His Institute for Justice, for example, has attacked local economic regulations, such as taxicab monopolies, that it believes hinder minorities. In 1989, Bolick won a landmark lawsuit on behalf of a black entrepreneur in the District, overturning a law that banned outdoor shoeshine stands.

Bolick does not easily fit the right-wing pigeonhole in which his adversaries have placed him. "We work very hard to establish nontraditional alliances," he said. "We're not your typical conservative interest group."

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