President George H.W. Bush (right), standing with golf legend Tiger Woods, had a complicated legacy on civil rights and issues affecting the African-American community.
President George H.W. Bush and the Complicated Nature of American Politics
Almost universally, Americans viewed President George H.W. Bush as a good and decent man.
Even those who disagreed with some of his policies still liked and respected the man, his bride and his family, which also included former President George W. Bush (43).
But staying in political office sometimes means doing what is popular amongst your constituents at the time even if it does not sit well with the politician personally.
“Intellectually and emotionally, he was somebody who was civil rights-minded,” said Doug Brinkley, a Rice University historian. “Bush wanted to see himself as a man devoid of racism. But the reality is that Bush often had to do dog whistles and appeal to less enlightened Americans on race.”
Therefore, while America mourns former President Bush (41) for his dedication and loyalty to the country, many have admitted that his record on civil rights has been mixed over the years.
“He came from the northern Republican tradition, which was moderate and somewhat progressive on race at the time,” said Timothy Naftali, the author of the book George H.W. Bush: The American Presidents Series. “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 young Texas congressman, Bush voiced his displeasure with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
He even criticized his opponent’s support of the bill.
“The new civil rights act was passed to protect 14 percent of the people,” the future president said. “I’m also worried about the other 86 percent.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in public places and outlawed employment discrimination.
Bush would eventually lose his 1964 bid for United States Congress.
He won a seat in Congress in 1966 during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s tenure in the Oval Office.
Subsequently, Bush came out in support of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed discrimination as it pertains to buying and renting homes based on race, color, sex, familial status, etc.
Despite his stance against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws that empowered African-Americans over the following decades, the Bush family had and still has a track record of supporting African-American causes.
Bush’s father Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut worked to desegregate schools in Connecticut.
Senator Bush also worked to secure voting rights for African-Americans and raised money for the United Negro College Fund.
Decades later, former First Lady Barbara Bush sat on the board at the medical school at Morehouse College and donated generously to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Professor David Greenburg of Rutgers University said that Bush struggled with “the right thing to do versus the political thing to do.”
Therefore like with many politicians, Americans always have to decipher what he actually felt versus what he actually said and did at times.
After serving his country in World War II, graduating from Yale University, serving Texas as a congressman, leading the CIA, working as a liaison to China and working for the United Nations, Bush served eight years as vice president under former President Ronald Reagan.
The Reagan presidency, while popular amongst rich White conservatives, was responsible for the expanded war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing and much longer sentences for violators of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, which incarcerated African-Americans in droves as compared to their White counterparts.
But when Bush ran for president in 1988, he vowed to push a gentler version of conservatism.
Nevertheless, many of his policies on drugs and crime mirrored his predecessor in many ways, playing on many negative stereotypes of African-Americans.
A Super Pac infamously released the Willie Horton ad when it appeared Bush would lose the presidential election to Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
In the commercial, Dukakis who supported weekend furloughs for criminals was blamed when Horton raped a woman while on furlough.
Horton was in jail for murder at the time.
Although the Bush campaign did not put the commercial out themselves, it benefitted from it.
Bush also mentioned the Horton story many times on the campaign trail.
“Horton applied for a furlough. He was given the furlough. He was released. And he fled—only to terrorize a family and repeatedly rape a woman,” Bush said to the National Sheriff’s Association.
Many political pundits believe the Horton ad, which played on the stereotype of African-American men as violent criminals and was considered racist by many, helped win the 1988 presidential election for Bush.
Although Bush reportedly did not want to run a nasty campaign, he probably would have lost the 1988 election if not for factors like the controversial Horton advertisement.
He later said that the Horton ad was one of his biggest mistakes.
Bush did not commission the Horton ad.
However, he definitely benefitted from the controversial commercial.
“It was out of character for him,” said civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson. “He did it in the heat of battle.”
But during his one-term presidency, Bush appointed Colin Powell as the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
However, he angered many in the African-American community when he chose Justice Clarence Thomas as the replacement of retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Justice Marshall had been a stalwart for liberal causes and issues that benefitted the African-American community.
On the contrary, Justice Thomas held conservative views and often voted against issues that would benefit the African-American community like affirmative action.
Furthermore, while campaigning for the presidency in 1988, Bush referred to Jeb Bush’s children as the “little brown ones.”
Jeb Bush has three children with his Mexican-born wife, Columba.