From The Times Washington Bureau

AFFIRMATIVE ACTOR: Before the Clinton administration decided last week to join the court case against California's Proposition 209, one of the last holdouts had been President Clinton himself. In an interview with The Times, Clinton explained that "in the beginning I did not feel it necessary" to intervene in the litigation seeking to block the enforcement of the initiative, which bans the use of racial or gender preferences in state hiring and college admissions. Clinton said he did not want to endorse the argument that the Constitution, in effect, required government to grant preferences to minorities. But he said he was ultimately convinced by Justice Department attorneys that the initiative would fail to pass constitutional muster because it eliminated preferences only for certain groups--women and minorities--while various advantages for other groups remained in state laws. Whether the Supreme Court accepts that interpretation, a prospect many legal scholars consider uncertain, Clinton says he would "still like to see us shift more to an emphasis on economic need rather than race-based need" through programs like empowerment zones to encourage development in low-income areas.


CROWING ACTOR: Many in the Democratic stronghold known as Hollywood were gloating over House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethical travails this week. But only one could claim to have prompted the probe. Ex-Georgia Rep. Ben Jones, who played the auto mechanic Cooter on the former TV series "Dukes of Hazzard," was back in Los Angeles this week working on a reunion show at Warner Bros. Studio. It was Jones, 55, a two-term House member defeated by Gingrich in 1994, who filed the original ethics complaint alleging that Gingrich had used tax-exempt foundations for partisan ends. "I knew I was right," Jones hooted after a day of shooting. "I knew the evidence. Now everyone else knows what I knew all along."


PRICEY SAFEGUARDS: With mechanical malfunction emerging as the leading theory for the cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800, a new question is popping up: Does the nation need all the costly measures the White House's Gore Commission called for after the crash to prevent terrorists from putting bombs on jetliners? Robert W. Hahn, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says in a new study of the recommendations that asking passengers to arrive at airports 30 minutes earlier will cost some $9 billion a year in lost time. Putting sophisticated explosive detection equipment at the nation's 75 busiest airports will cost another $2.2 billion, he says. Hahn also notes that when the government calculates the cost of existing safety measures, it "uses a value of $2.3 million per statistical life saved." But a similar calculation for the added security measures "yields an annual cost per life saved of over $200 million." And Hahn found one more surprise: The measures will prove so bothersome or expensive that some passengers will switch to other forms of transportation--and based on accident rates, 60 more will die each year on those carriers.


IRISH BREW-HA-HA: Departing Secretary of State Warren Christopher abandoned his guarded demeanor last week to address a swirling issue bluntly: It's true, he said in opening his year-end press conference, that he prefers his "Irish coffee" without the traditional caffeine and Irish whiskey, as had been noted by a highly amused White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. The droll top diplomat then had waiters serve cups of the sedate brew--which amounts to decaf coffee and whipped cream--telling reporters he was offering the "Christopher special so you can learn with me how good it is that way."

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