Vice President George Bush's strategy of branding his Democratic opponent a dangerous left-winger by calling him a "card-carrying member" of the American Civil Liberties Union may do little to elevate the national discourse but it has had one discernible, not altogether unwelcome, result.
It forced Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to identify a number of areas in which he disagrees with ACLU positions, which could incidentally mean more, not fewer votes, for the Democratic ticket. When Americans learn, for example, that he does not oppose child pornography laws, as the ACLU apparently does, they may feel better about him. I know I do.
Even so, it is a shame that the Democratic nominee should have to make a pronouncement, given the important role the ACLU has played in the past and the role it should play today and tomorrow.
I speak, let the record show, as a Republican and, at least as I define the term, as a conservative. And, while I carry no card, I might well consider myself a fellow-traveler of the ACLU--convinced as I am that if our society takes its Constitution and its Bill of Rights seriously, there is a crucial need for such an organization.
When the rest of the populace is either remaining silent in the face of injustice or screaming for blood, there ought to be an organization--let's call it the American Civil Liberties Union--that will stand up for those common decencies and basic freedoms our governing documents proclaim as fundamentally American.
That is certainly a role the ACLU has played throughout most of its turbulent history, playing it, in some cases, admirably indeed. Its record in World War I, for instance, when it painstakingly defended the rights of conscientious objectors, is exemplary.
Efforts on behalf of German-Americans during the same period--when the restof the country, in the frenzy of a war to end all wars, was ready to abrogatethe liberties of German-Americans en masse--were downright noble.
While the organization's record on the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II was something of a disappointment (founder Roger N. Baldwin once told Dwight MacDonald he was "ashamed" of the ACLU's equivocal stand), there was the enormous challenge of civil rights to be met in the years to come, and it rose to that occasion, too.
Unfortunately, perhaps, the organization's reputation as a positive force in our political and cultural life is falling fast. And, according to John P. Roche, active in the ACLU when he was also national chairman of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in the 1960s, this may have a good deal less to do with ideological opposition from the forces of reaction than it does with the ACLU's own frequently foolish decisions.
The ACLU, says Roche, a former aide to Lyndon B. Johnson and now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, "is a very different organization now than it was (in the '50s and early '60s) when it played such a significant part in the quest for basic freedoms--for racial desegregation, for example."
Today, he fears, "it's just another mail-order house, that so many of the major battles it was formed to fight--for the most basic civil rights for minorities, for freedom of speech and freedom of the press--have been won, thanks in large part to the ACLU, that it has had to go out hunting for new causes so the organization will have a raison d'etre."
The group's support of the supposed right of American Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., some years back, Roche says, is typical of its new direction. "I discussed that issue with Roger the last time I saw him before he died, and I told him that if the Nazis wanted to rent a hall and give their speeches, well, that's a right the ACLU could get behind. And if anybody tried to disrupt their rally, they should be thrown in jail.
"But to say they have a right to march down Main Street in front of Holocaust survivors--in what is a deliberate incitement--makes no sense at all."
In the mid-1960s, the organization's then-legal director Melvin L. Wulf began to talk of America's "fascist" potential; that was when Roche drifted away, joining a list of distinguished ex-ACLU members including John Dewey. "I left," Roche says, "when the organization decided the United States of America itself was unconstitutional."
Kent Christopher Owen, a Republican activist from Indiana who describes himself as a "Burkean conservative," also discusses the organization, and his affiliation with it, more in sadness than in anger.
"When I was in the ACLU in the 1960s, the organization represented a meeting ground of fair-minded persons who felt deeply about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and believed they had a duty, when the need arose, to stand united against the wholesale abrogation of civil liberties, such as the treatment of German-Americans in World War I, the Japanese in World War II and American blacks who faced discrimination in public accommodations throughout the society until very recent years.
"It was an organization that was very much non-ideological and nonpartisan. Its executive director, John Pemberton, was in fact, a Republican. And the causes it espoused then were causes that could be defended in terms of the public interest. There were values for which all good men could--and should--stand firm, for the rights of individuals against the larger society, for civility and for common decency."
What drove Owen away from ACLU ranks, he says, was the organization's determination "to take positions that made sense only through the most dogmatic and sophistical interpretation of legal language--so that some minor error in a judge's instructions to a jury, for example, or a typographical error in a transcript would result in a child molester going free. And this would be hailed as a victory. It is not my belief that turning convicted felons loose in any way serves the public good."
Increasingly the organization has espoused causes that make no sense to most of us--and may in fact serve no useful purpose, though they do manage to keep the organization in the headlines.
Most Americans, as a result, probably have a sense of what the ACLU is and what it represents. When asked whether they like it, the answer probably won't be one civil libertarians would appreciate, though the language in which it is stated they would no doubt feel compelled to defend. If so, that is probably the ACLU's own fault.
Mary McGrory, a liberal columnist whose dedication to civil liberties cannot be questioned, has noted, for example, how year after year, with its endless objections to manger scenes and yuletide carols, the organization makes a practice of "pursuing the spirit of Christmas across the land like a thief."
Michael Kinsley, editor of the New Republic, bemoaning the same tendency, has written that "it wearies me to see the ACLU expending its limited resources of money and good will playing Grinch like this."
Less thoughtful Americans--and they, of course, are the Bush targets in this instance--cannot be blamed for thinking there is something amiss about an organization that calls their manger scene at town hall an affront to common decency and then tells them they must let Nazis march down Main Street.
If the ACLU is to command the respect it once did, it will have to clean up its act, or explain itself more effectively.
Until the ACLU does, it will have to be prepared to have its good name bandied about as Bush is now doing. And Dukakis had better be prepared to explain--and defend--his affiliation with it.
If it does neither, then the cause of civil liberties will suffer, or turn to different friends.