Bush’s civil rights record mixed

Op­po­si­tion to bills is in conflict with other ac­tions

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Mon­ica Rhor

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 office.”

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 Sher­iffs’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

“Horton ap­plied for a fur­lough,” Bush said. “He was given the fur­lough. He was re­leased.

“And he fled – 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 affirma­tive ac­tion, to re­place Thur­good Mar­shall, the first 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 first sig­nificant 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.

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