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BUSH'S FEAR OF QUOTA HIRING IS CONTRIVED . . .

America's long struggle for civil rights and racial justice can be said to have accomplished this: We went from a time when white males were always assured all the top slots in hiring and promotion to a time when white males were assured only most of the slots.

But that progress and the tools that pulled the nation toward it have become dangerous in President Bush's view and even - as he told West Point's graduating class - a threat to "our national well-being as much as violence or drugs or poverty."That - if the president believes it himself - is an awful state of affairs for a nation that had reached a quiet accommodation with laws and employment practices, an accommodation that some of the time allowed some blacks and other minorities and some women to step ahead of white males.

They couldn't step ahead of all white males or most white males. But occasional tinkering in government and private business with test scores and selective judgments permitted a few - if otherwise qualified - to step ahead.

Then a batch of civil rights decisions out of a conservative Supreme Court trimmed back the step-ahead prospects for those few minorities and women.

The decisions prompted correcting legislation, Democratic bills submitted last year and again this year.

President Bush's response was discovery of a political issue, "quotas," an issue already successfully road-tested in Republican Sen. Jesse Helms' North Carolina re-election campaign in which TV ads implied that a disappointed white man had lost a job to a black man.

It's not clear in President Bush's recent lectern-thumping, arm-waving speeches how "quotas" could be used under legislation that specifically outlaws them. It's not even clear what the president understands "quotas" to be.

If he put aside his fearsome "quotas" contrivance, President Bush might reflect on where the nation once was and where it went during his lifetime.

He might use his own experience, what's said to be a defining period of his life when he became a young Navy pilot and flew a torpedo bomber in World War II combat.

In the reality of that time, the competition for Navy flight training was among white males only. The thought that a black man - or a woman - could qualify and compete to train as a Navy pilot wasn't just beyond belief.

And the white-males-only pattern was enforced by law and custom, not just in the competition to become Navy pilots. That's changed. Black pilots - and women - fly the nation's military aircraft and Bush's personal choice as the country's top military commander, Gen. Colin Powell, is a distinguished black man.

It was changed by law and the nation's good common sense, just as civil rights legislation and its implementation put public and private employment on a track where now only most of the competitive jobs go to white males most of the time.

President Bush advocates a step backward while he fans the frustrations and fears of white American men. It can't be denied there are white men who see themselves as victims - and who have been victimized - as government has searched for ways to correct ancient wrongs.

Their concerns deserve to be addressed, but not in abandonment of social progress that took so long and won so little.