Bush’s civil rights record mixed
Opposition to bills is in conflict with other actions
Early in George H.W. Bush’s political career, when he was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas, he came out against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, deriding his opponent as “radical” for supporting the bill that ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination.
“The new civil rights act was passed to protect 14 percent of the people,” he said. “I’m also worried about the other 86 percent.”
The stand seemed at odds with his family’s long history of supporting civil rights (his father, Prescott Bush, a Connecticut senator worked to desegregate schools and protect voting rights) and with his own work raising money for the United Negro College Fund.
But in Texas, where the Republican Party was steadily becoming more conservative and embracing the Southern strategy of appealing to white voters, Bush’s position made sense.
He would later regret opposing the groundbreaking bill, even apologizing to his pastor, according to historian Timothy Naftali, author of “George H.W. Bush: The American Presidents Series.”
“He came from the northern Repub-
lican tradition, which was moderate and somewhat progressive on race at the time,” Naftali said. “But George Bush sometimes chose expediency in his campaigning. He didn’t always have the courage of his convictions as a candidate, but more often than not, he had the courage of his convictions in office.”
As a freshman congressman from Texas, Bush joined a group of moderate Republicans to support civil rights legislation and voted in favor of the 1968 Fair Housing Act – a move that did not sit well with his conservative constituents back home.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said Bush, who died Friday at the age of 94, was often torn between “the right thing to do versus the political thing to do.”
Bush’s campaign in his 1988 bid for the presidency is often cited as one of the nastiest in political memory. An attack ad mined ugly stereotypes of African-Americans, and Bush questioned the patriotism of his opponent, Michael Dukakis.
The Willie Horton ad, which focused on a convicted murderer who committed a rape while out of prison on a furlough program Dukakis supported, was put out by a conservative PAC, not the Bush campaign. However, Bush repeatedly brought up Horton’s name in speeches, including one to the National Sheriffs’ Association.
“Horton applied for a furlough,” Bush said. “He was given the furlough. He was released.
“And he fled – only to terrorize a family and repeatedly rape a woman.”
The Bush campaign released an ad that showed footage of prisoners going through a revolving door – a strategy that played on white voters’ fears and prejudices, said Jason Johnson, a professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Susan Estrich, Dukakis’ campaign manager, accused the Bush campaign of stoking racial tensions. “If you were going to run a campaign of fear and smear and appeal to racial hatred,” she told The New York Times, “you could not have picked a better case to use than this one.”
The Horton ad helped squelch the conversation on a criminal justice overhaul, which was in its incipient stages, Johnson said. “It racialized and demonized black people.”
As president, Bush’s actions often called into question his stands on race and civil rights, Johnson said.
“It’s fair and reasonable to critique everything we can about George Bush,” Johnson said. “We can say he was horrendous on civil rights but that he was a good father and treated people decently.”
In 1990, Bush vetoed a civil rights act that would have expanded job protections. He and Ronald Reagan were the only presidents to veto a civil rights measure since the start of the civil rights era. Bush said the bill would have introduced the “destructive force of quotas into our national employment system.”
Bush’s most lasting legacy in race relations may stem from his nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his role in escalating the war on drugs.
By selecting the conservative Thomas, an ardent opponent of affirmative action, to replace Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, who championed equal rights and challenged discrimination, Bush stalled or set back progress on civil rights issues for decades, said Johnson, who likened the choice to “trolling.”
Bush was criticized for his role in the war on drugs, which led to the mass incarceration of many African-American men.
In his first significant policy speech as president, on Sept. 5, 1989, Bush chose to focus on drug policy and the cocaine epidemic.
He called for a $1.5 billion increase in drug-related federal spending to law enforcement and pushed to “enlarge our criminal justice system across the board, at the local, state and federal levels alike.
“We need more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors.”
That approach contributed to the socalled 100-to-1 drug sentencing discrepancy, in which the penalty for crack possession and sale was 100 times greater than that for cocaine, said Joshua Clark Davis, a University of Baltimore history professor.