WASHINGTON — For the 12 years of the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations, liberal activists regularly battled the nominations of Republicans who belonged to elite private clubs that excluded blacks, women and others, branding the nominees as closet racists or sexists unfit to hold high government posts.
Now, conservative activists are turning the tables and using the same tactic against Democratic nominees.
Their first target is Webb Hubbell, President Clinton's choice as associate U.S. attorney general, the No. 3 job in the Justice Department. A former mayor of Little Rock and former Arkansas Supreme Court justice, Hubbell has also been a law partner to Hillary Rodham Clinton and a golfing partner to Bill Clinton.
But his Senate confirmation hearing next week is likely to focus mostly on his membership in the Country Club of Little Rock, which until December had no black members.
"It's hypocrisy," said Thomas L. Jipping, legal affairs director for Coalitions for America, a conservative group that lobbied for Republican nominees such as Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and David H. Souter. "If membership in an all-white club was disqualifying for Ken Ryskamp (whose judicial nomination was defeated in 1991), it should be disqualifying for Webb Hubbell," he said.
Ryskamp, a U.S. district judge in Miami, resigned from the exclusive Riviera Club in Coral Cables a week before a Senate committee considered his nomination to join the U.S. appeals court in Atlanta in 1991. He was voted down nonetheless after a hearing in which he bungled answers to a series of questions.
In 1987, Judge Anthony M. Kennedy was pressured to resign from private clubs in Sacramento and San Francisco shortly after Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court.
But Hubbell, 45, has refused to resign from the Little Rock club and has argued that he worked to open the organization to black members. Committee aides said the club has female, Jewish and Asian-American members.
In his Judiciary Committee questionnaire, Hubbell was asked if he belonged to groups that "discriminate on the basis of race, sex or religion--through either formal membership requirements or the practical implementation of membership policies."
Hubbell answered, "No." He said he would resign from the Little Rock club "if I believed that the club would reject an applicant on the basis of race." Moreover, he said he was "one of the principal forces" at the club who sought to "actively recruit minority members."
That claim, however, has been disputed by NAACP leaders in Little Rock.
"He's lying," said Daniel Bowman, an office manager and longtime leader of the NAACP office in Little Rock. "He didn't try to solicit black members. It's a lily-white club. The only blacks out there are janitors, cooks and dishwashers."
He and Dale Charles, president of the NAACP chapter in Little Rock, say they have spoken to prominent blacks in the area and found no evidence of recruiting by the club.
"I feel the least he could do now is to resign from the club," Charles said.
Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern said the attacks against Hubbell are unfair. "He isn't the guy who tried to keep blacks out. He tried to get blacks in," he said.
In March, then-Gov. Bill Clinton played golf at the club during a campaign break and was denounced for doing so. He quickly announced that it was "a mistake" to go to the all-white club and vowed not to return until it had integrated.
In December, a month after Clinton was elected President, the club admitted its first black member, Howard Reed, an economist. He has since joined the staff of U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor.
During his appearance before the Judiciary Committee next week, Hubbell is expected to describe efforts he undertook to bring blacks into the club, which charges a $25,000 initiation fee.
Some of the liberal legal groups that attacked Republican nominees for their club memberships have been quiet on Hubbell's nomination.
Nan Aron, director of the liberal Alliance for Justice, said she believes that "membership in private clubs is still to be discouraged, but under the language of (the Senate) resolution, Webb Hubbell doesn't have a problem." She was referring to a policy adopted in 1990 that said the committee would frown on nominees who belong to clubs that practice discrimination.
"The club is not currently discriminatory and he has made efforts to end its discriminatory practices," Aron said.
The alliance, which led the fight against Republican nominees such as Thomas and Robert H. Bork, had pressed the Judiciary Committee during the 1980s to take a strong stand against judicial nominees who belonged to discriminatory clubs.
David Carle, an aide to Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), said Simon is troubled by Hubbell's club membership and intends to ask about it during the hearing.