Last summer, when Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis was stalking Democratic votes in Iowa, he portrayed himself as a liberal who would fight for civil rights and civil liberties.
"I'm a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union," he told a meeting in Spencer, Iowa.
This summer, that statement has become one of Vice President George Bush's favorite lines of attack.
"He says, 'I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU,' " Bush told a rally in San Antonio last week. "Well, I am not and I never will be."
The ACLU and Dukakis oppose state-mandated prayer in public schools, Bush said, while he favors it. The ACLU and Dukakis oppose the death penalty, while Bush says he supports it. The ACLU and Dukakis believe a woman has a right to choose an abortion, while "I believe in the right to life," Bush said.
And Dukakis, siding with the ACLU, vetoed as unconstitutional a 1977 law requiring teachers to begin each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance, a bill that Bush says he would have signed.
Dukakis' "entire attitude" on social issues is "best summed up in four little letters: A-C-L-U," Bush said.
Bush's attack has put the ACLU in its most prominent position ever in a presidential campaign. The group has been in the thick of many controversial fights, but "nobody in the organization can remember anything like this," said Morton Halperin, director of the ACLU's Washington office.
Founded in 1920
Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has been one of the nation's most revered and reviled organizations. Its lawyers have fought for the free-speech rights of a wide range of defendants, from communists to Ku Klux Klan members.
In the 1920s, they backed Tennessee teacher John Scopes in his challenge to the state's law forbidding the teaching of evolution, and they sought new trials for anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. In the 1930s, they defended the nine black "Scottsboro boys" who were accused of raping two white women in Alabama.
In the 1940s, they represented Japanese-Americans who had been sent to internment camps. In the 1950s, they backed the legal effort to desegregate the public schools. In the 1960s, they fought for rights for criminal suspects and in the case of Florida prisoner Clarence Gideon, won for all defendants the right to have a lawyer.
In the 1970s, they backed women's groups in winning the right to abortion. And this summer, the organization filed a court brief in behalf of former National Security Council aide Oliver L. North, arguing that he cannot get a fair trial because he was forced to testify before Congress.
"We are a fiercely nonpartisan organization" devoted to defending the Bill of Rights, said New York University law professor Norman Dorsen, president of the 250,000-member ACLU.
Until this year, presidents and presidential candidates--even conservatives such as Ronald Reagan--have avoided direct attacks on the civil liberties group, although former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III once referred to the ACLU as the "criminals' lobby."
Republican strategists say Bush is stressing Dukakis' ACLU affiliation because it simply and sharply delineates his views from those of the Massachusetts governor. It plays especially well into the Republican strategy of trying to define Dukakis as a true-blue liberal.
"The ACLU has championed some bizarre causes in recent years, which we don't think represent the views of mainstream Americans," said Bush spokesman Mark Goodin. "Mike Dukakis likes to talk tough on crime and drugs, but he and the ACLU seem to be more interested in the rights of criminals."
As examples of "bizarre" causes, Goodin cites these examples:
--The ACLU believes that no book or movie should be banned as obscene, including child pornography.
--It favors the decriminalization of prostitution and drug use. (Dorsen, the ACLU president, says drug use should not be punished because it is "an illness.")
--The ACLU also believes that gay and lesbian couples should have the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples.
"Despite what they say about being nonpartisan, the ACLU has always been the legal arm of the liberal left," said William Donohue, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and the author of the 1985 book, "The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union."
Refuse to Reply
Bush advisers think their attack is working, in part because Dukakis and his staff have refused detailed replies. Dukakis has not delineated where he differs from the ACLU positions, and the Dukakis campaign did not respond on Monday to questions about the ACLU.
Last week, Dukakis said he vetoed the 1977 law on the Pledge of Allegiance because both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court said the measure was unconstitutional.
On several other issues, such as mandatory prayer in school and legalized abortion, Bush has attacked Dukakis and the ACLU for supporting views that represent the law as enunciated by the Supreme Court.
Republican aides counter by saying that as President, Bush would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who would allow the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer in schools.
The Republican platform also calls for outlawing abortion nationwide, not just a repeal of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision. If the high court were to reverse that 1973 ruling, it would be up to state legislatures to decide whether to restrict abortion. But the GOP platform says that Congress and the courts should say that "unborn children" are persons under the 14th Amendment, a change that would make abortion unconstitutional.
To conservative attorneys such as Daniel Popeo of the Washington Legal Foundation, the ACLU is a "radical fringe group" that deserves nothing but scorn.
"Look at who their clients are: terrorists, Nazis, child molesters, serial killers, spies and dope dealers. When they (ACLU lawyers) succeed, mainstream Americans suffer," he said.
'Last Bastion of Liberty'
But to liberal Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, the ACLU is as all-American as the Bill of Rights. "I've had my disagreements with them, but I am proud to be a member. The ACLU is the last bastion of liberty in this country," he said.
Dershowitz noted that even Meese got the support of the ACLU recently when the former attorney general complained about the unfairness of his being branded as guilty in the press before he had been charged or convicted of any offense.
"My conservative friends like to say that the definition of a conservative is 'a civil libertarian who has been mugged,' " Dershowitz said. "I think a civil libertarian is a conservative who had been under investigation."