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President Nixon has allowed the impression to spread that his "gradualism" on desegregation is a political maneuver to co-opt George Wallace's constituency and placate other whites who think that blacks have come too far too fast. "The Administration," says Southern Historian C. Vann Woodward, "is in tune with the reaction and quite accommodating to it." The White House greeted questions about the segregationist amendments with ambivalence. When Senate G.O.P. Leader Hugh Scott, for example, tried to head off the Stennis amendment with a more innocuous rider, Presidential Counsellor Bryce Harlow sent around a note saying, "Your amendment is Administration language." But, Harlow added, "other approaches would also accord with the President's basic objectiveracial equality." The "other approach" was that of John Stennis.
Distorted Cries. Late last summer Nixon promised "a middle course," meaning that the South can go slow. The question remains what the Supreme Court will decide, having ordered last fall that integration must occur "now." Says Panetta: "There is no such thing as the status quo in the desegregation effort. You're either going to move forward or backward. The real danger is that the White House is listening to distorted cries about arguments such as busing and is backing away from the real issues."
More deeply, the question concerns presidential leadership. Confronted last week by a television interviewer, Spiro Agnew described the presidential position as "a responsibility to enforce the laws of the land." Surely a President's franchise is larger than a sheriff's. Americans look to him for moral leadership.
Everyoneor nearly everyoneagrees that the process of school desegregation has involved instances of injustice and stupidity. Busing is the most objectionable tool. Yet in many districts it is the only tool that promises to be effective. The question Nixon has yet to answer is whether he prefers a retrenchment because he may have a better solution in minda way to break up the ghettos of the North, for example or whether, out of political or other motives, he would keep the status quo. Nixon could argue, of course, that most of the nation is simply not ready for the changes, and cannot be pushed too hard. But such an argument makes new and perhaps dangerous demands upon the black American's exhausted patience.