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A Republican Reviews the Case for the ACLU

October 02, 1988|Alan Pell Crawford | Alan Pell Crawford is the author of " Thunder on the Right: The New Right and the Politics of Resentment " (Pantheon)

"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.

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