Jonesing for votes

George W. Bush's speech at a college that bans interracial dating raises questions about his compassion.

Topics: George W. Bush, Republican Party

Self-proclaimed “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush spoke Wednesday morning at Bob Jones University, a Greenville, S.C., school that bans interracial dating on campus.

“The governor doesn’t agree with that policy,” noted Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. “But this is a school that has a lot of conservative voters, and it’s a common stop on the campaign trail.”

Tucker noted that commentator Alan Keyes, former presidential candidate and Sen. Bob Dole and former President Ronald Reagan had all made visits to the school, as had Democrats like current South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges.

That won’t be enough to satisfy critics, including fellow conservatives. “It’s one thing to lurch to the right. It’s another thing to lurch back 60 years,” said Bill Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard. “You could make the case that ‘compassionate conservatism’ died Feb. 2 when Bush appeared at Bob Jones U.”

Bush seems particularly vulnerable to criticism for speaking at the school. How does such an appearance jibe with his inclusive rhetoric and the myriad African-American kids he features prominently in his TV ads? Would Bush’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have been able to date someone of a different nationality — like his wife, Columba, a Latina — if he been a student at Bob Jones?

A spokeswoman for Bob Jones University refused to explain why the school bans interracial dating. “We don’t have any comment on that. I’m going to hang up now,” she said.

The school refused to admit any African-American students until 1971. From 1971 to 1975, most unmarried African-American applicants were denied admission, presumably to prevent interracial dating. After 1975, the school — under court order — began admitting unmarried African-American students, though according to the U.S. government, it rejected “any applicant known to be a partner in an interracial marriage.”

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After the 1975 court order, Bob Jones administrators established rules requiring expulsion for any student who married or dated outside his or her race or belonged to an organization that advocated or encouraged others to marry or date outside his or her race.

It was then that the Internal Revenue Service revoked the school’s tax-exempt status. Bob Jones filed suit against the government for discriminating against its religious beliefs — newspaper accounts have reported that the school opposes interracial dating because of “scriptural belief.”

A court found in favor of the university’s position, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed it, concluding, “Certain governmental interests are so compelling that conflicting religious practices must yield in their favor.” The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration sided against the IRS in its controversy with Bob Jones, though the Supreme Court eventually ruled in the IRS’s favor.

Bush’s father, then Ronald Reagan’s vice president, avoided taking a stand on the issue, deeming it — according to a Cabinet source who spoke to columnist Jack Anderson — “too dangerous politically.” But in a 1983 interview with U.S. News & World Report, then-Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman Clarence Thomas called the administration’s position on the issue a “mistake” that “may have fostered the perception that attacking discrimination is not a top priority. The Bob Jones University fiasco … overshadowed some of the good things this administration has done.”

While treading into the combustible racial terrain of South Carolina, all of the GOP candidates have stumbled while negotiating the line between the state’s conservatives and those who clearly long for the good ol’ days before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Until Keyes pressed him in a TV debate, Bush refused to condemn a supporter — South Carolina state Sen. Arthur Ravenel — who called the NAACP the “national association of retarded people.” Arizona Sen. John McCain has taken every possible position on whether the South Carolina Statehouse should fly the Confederate flag. And even while Keyes has bashed Bush for refusing to take a stand on the Confederate flag controversy, Keyes himself refuses to say anything other than it is an issue that should be decided by the people of South Carolina.

Bush’s “compassionate” rhetoric also doesn’t necessarily seem to square with other campaign practices — like, for instance, his Louisiana campaign chairman, Gov. Mike Foster, who was fined $20,000 for purchasing mailing lists from Klansman David Duke, an act Bush has yet to publicly comment on despite repeated inquiries from the press.

Such coddling may come back to harm Bush. At a recent convention of the Republican Jewish Coalition, many Bush supporters expressed disappointment at their candidate’s unwillingness to condemn Pat Buchanan’s anti-Semitic outbursts.

But the problem seems to be one belonging to the GOP in general, not just Bush. Bush is not even the only presidential candidate on the Bob Jones University speaking tour. According to an Associated Press report, Keyes will speak at the school on Feb. 14 and publisher Steve Forbes will do so on Feb. 17. A McCain strategist said that the candidate hadn’t been invited to speak at the school, but that he opposed the school’s policy.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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