Abolish the White House Office on Race! (Whoops, They Already Did)

White House chief of staff Andy Card looks like a fool for telling USA Todaythat the White House would close its offices on AIDS and race. In yesterday’s White House press briefing (yes, daily press briefings are finally available on the White House Web site), Ari Fleischer explained that Card had been mistaken. But a close reading of the briefing (or of today’s follow-up coverage in USA Today and the Washington Post) makes clear that Card was not mistaken. The functions of the race office are being folded into the White House Office of Public Liaison and the White House Domestic Policy Council. The functions of the AIDS office are being folded into the Domestic Policy Council. One or two employees of the Health and Human Services Department will be detailed to the White House to work with the Domestic Policy Council on AIDS, but without a specially appointed AIDS “czar” heading up the effort. To summarize this transaction as a closing of the White House race and AIDS offices, as Card did, is entirely accurate.

By focusing on the furious reaction by AIDS and civil rights activists to Card’s remarks, and by accepting Fleischer’s preposterous spin, the press managed to bypass the only interesting story here, which is whether the White House offices on race and AIDS are worth keeping. The answer: race, no; AIDS, yes.

The race office, formally known as the Office on One America, was the creation of Bill Clinton’s second-term initiative on race, a policy effort that never really got off the ground. In the Clinton administration’s official list of its accomplishments, if you click on “additional accomplishments” and then on “Working on Behalf of African-Americans,” you will find no mention of the Office on One America. There’s a reason for that: It didn’t do anything. Its director, Ben Johnson, wasn’t even appointed until 1999. By all accounts, Johnson is a very nice fellow, and in White House meetings he often had thoughtful things to say about racial and gender equality. But “on the policy, he was just not involved,” says one former Clinton White House aide. Many of his duties overlapped with those of the Office of Public Liaison, which handles outreach to various groups. Had Clinton been pushing an ambitious civil rights agenda, Johnson would have very possibly spearheaded it. But he didn’t, and the odds that Bush will focus on race seem remote. If Bush decides to surprise us, he can always rely on his Domestic Policy Council staff, the Civil Rights Commission, the Justice Department’s civil rights office, and various other existing government agencies.

The AIDS office, by contrast, was around for both of Clinton’s two terms, and its director, Sandra Thurman, played a significant role in making AIDS policy. For example, the White House AIDS office helped force the U.S. trade representative to back off from its initial unquestioning support of U.S. drug companies in disputes with Third World countries over what constitutes patent infringement of AIDS drugs. (Tina Rosenberg wrote an excellent New York Times Magazine cover story about this a few weeks ago that, unfortunately, is no longer available free online, but click here to read Anthony Lewis’ summary of it.) It is realistic to fear that, without an AIDS czar, the Bush administration will pursue a strategy on AIDS that is too favorable to the drug companies or insufficient to fight the disease effectively at home. Of course, it’s also realistic to fear that the Bush administration would do these things with an AIDS czar. Still, Chatterbox would rather keep the AIDS office. The race problem in America is familiar and chronic, but the AIDS epidemic is relatively new and unquestionably acute (and posing a disproportionate threat to African-Americans). Acute problems should take precedence in the awarding of White House office space.

[Correction, 2/9: Tina Rosenberg’s New York Times Magazine piece on AIDS and drug patents is still available free online (though difficult to find). Click here to read it.]

[Correction, 2/9: A Fraygrant named Trikster informs Chatterbox that he was looking in the wrong place for the Clinton administration’s paean to the White House office on race. It wasn’t filed under “Working on Behalf of African-Americans” but it was under “Summary: A Nation Transformed” under the heading, “President’s One America Initiative.” Chatterbox regrets the error. Obviously, his Web browsing skills were not operating at peak strength yesterday. The Clinton White House’s vague language about what the race office does ($5 million for “dialogues to promote and facilitate discussions on racial diversity”?) nonetheless underscores Chatterbox’s larger point.]