Where is a good idea when you really need it?

Convening a presidential Advisory Panel on Race in the era of official discrimination and segregation would have been a bold move 60 years ago.

Convening a presidential Advisory Panel on Race in the era of official discrimination and segregation would have been a bold move 60 years ago.

Is it surprising that such a panel wasn't convened? No. Back then, silence was the national consensus.

Such political panels are usually formed to cement an existing consensus, especially when a long-ignored problem flares up.

Clinton's own decision to convene such a panel probably sounded like a great idea. Convene a panel. Have the President lead Donahue-style discussions about race on TV. Come up with recommendations. Have the President push them. But it's fizzled.

In justifying the panel, the President said our country is 'charting' a new course as racial minorities start approaching majority status.

He and the panel now know first-hand the truth of that assertion. A clear-cut consensus didn't exist. Many whites, the majority, think they've moved beyond prejudice. Minorities still feel the sting of discrimination - but often in attitudes and thoughtless impulses, not laws; things that are tough to define and solve.

The panel's PR build-up promised it would promote 'a constructive national dialogue.' But that suffered early on when an Asian-American member urged it to move beyond 'the black-white paradigm'. Its chairman, a distinguished historian who suffered the slights of segregation, publicly dismissed her concern. Symbolically, John Hope Franklin, projected the old - not the coming - America.

Native Americans claimed the panel ignored their concerns. A blacks-only meeting struck some as exclusive. Some meetings turned raucous. Everyone from affirmative action proponent Lani Guinier to the anti-racial Center for Equal Opportunity criticized it.

Perhaps things might have been different if many of the commission's staffers weren't so young and inexperienced. Bad PR started getting the administration's senior people involved, concerned with damage control.

The White House spins the panel as a success, claiming it initiated discussions about race.

Too often, though, the talk was about the commission: who testified; what issue was discussed. PR-wise, it was a failure, and looked unclear and confused in its objectives. Should the President accept the panel's recommendation to make itself a permanent fixture?

Here's a better idea for the President: call together conservative and liberal foundations, the news media, and PR firms. Urge them to put forth their own hard-hitting, thought-provoking, interactive PR about new America, and to encourage frank discussion. The Clinton Presidential Library could undertake it as a project; that would give the President two years to get his objectives straight.

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