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President George H. W. Bush and the Politics of Race

. . . And guess what, on Monday, I saw in the driveway of his [Dukakis’s] house? Jesse Jackson. So anyway, maybe he’ll put this Willie Horton guy on the ticket after all is said and done. And Willie Horton is the fellow who was a convicted murderer and rapist who. . . brutally and wantonly raped this woman. . . —Lee Atwater

I’d rather die than withdraw. If they’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me.—Clarence Thomas, October 1991

Facing a firestorm of criticism from his conservative constituency in the aftermath of his hesitant vote in support of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 Texas Congressman George Herbert Walker Bush argued that a political representative cannot merely represent the wishes of his constituents but must also consider his own “judgment” prior to taking a stand on issues of critical importance. As Bush warmed up, reminding his audience that African Americans and Mexican Americans were dying in the trenches of Vietnam to protect American liberty. Bush declared:

Somehow it seems fundamental that a man should not have a door slammed in his face because he is a negro or speaks with a Latin American accent. Open housing offers a ray of hope for blacks and other minorities locked out by habit and discrimination.

The ensuing cheers surprised even Bush, and the good feeling he experienced by being true to his conscience remained with him for the rest of his career.

Years later the former president recalled, “I became particularly passionate on the issue after my tour in Vietnam, where I saw young black soldiers fighting and dying for love of their country while affluent white kids ran away or got deferred, letting others go in their place.” The father of the future president, George W. Bush, then prime draft age himself asked: “Were we supposed to tell those black soldiers when they came home that they couldn’t buy houses in our neighborhood?”

The conflicting emotions clash with political necessity bothered the up-and-coming politician. For many the assassination Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a turning point, George H. W. Bush was no exception. On the very day of his assassination, April 4, 1968, Bush wrote a note to Chase Untermeyer, who had earlier lobbied Bush to support the Open Housing bill. He had just decided that he would vote in favor of the bill despite his “giant political misgivings.” He would vote his “heart” he decided, knowing full well that this was a deviation from the trajectory of his budding political career. In this case, he felt that the “symbolism of open housing" was most important, despite his lingering “constitutional” concerns.

Later Bush had to face the wrath when he met his constituents following the vote. He received the rude welcome he had anticipated At an open meeting he was initially greeted with a chorus of boos and could not speak above the fury of the crowd.99 When the tumult died down he indicated that he had received some eleven hundred letters from constituents on his vote on the bill, most were against the legislation. Revealingly he analyzed this mass of letters received and among those disagreeing with him he discerns one category of people who disagree with his vote and explain why “in a forceful but extremely fair way.” Disgruntled supporters and wayward constituents also responded to Bush in other ways that he described “filled with venom and vitriol.” These types of responses included the “unsigned letter,” the “threat,” the “sell-out” charge, the hostile phone call, and the “nigger-lover” accusation. Once again, the significance of anti-black attitudes to electoral success was hammered home to him as a basic political lesson.

In his speech to the crowd, Bush stated. “I like the part making it unlawful to exclude people from schools because of race, color, creed or natural origin–or to keep people from voting–or attending school.” He also indicated that he favored the provision making it a federal crime to prevent individuals from exercising their lawful rights of peaceful petition and protest and demonstrate. Having said that, Bush labored hard to erase the impression that he was “soft” on African Americans.

Later that year, in what was then an unusual act for a Republican politician, Bush visited Resurrection City in downtown Washington, DC., a semi-permanent encampment of the Poor People’s Campaign, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) movement continuing the work of the recently slain Martin Luther King. The next year Bush supported President Nixon's Philadelphia Plan which provided for the very “quotas” Bush would later rail against so hard while in the White House.

In the final analysis, however, these acts that, if viewed from a distance, might suggest sympathy with the black cause remain aberrations within the political career of George Bush. The Bush record with respect to African Americans mirrors his vacillations between liberal and conservative Republicanism. Bush’s inconsistency stems partially from the liberal Republicanism of his father, whose paternalism was a distinguishing feature of his Senate career. Following in his father’s footsteps, at Yale, not only was Bush a member of the secret Skull and Bones society but also served as the head of the campus effort to raise funds for the United Negro College Fund.

Born in June 1924 at a temporary family residence in Milton, Massachusetts, George Herbert Walker Bush was the child of wealth, privilege and political prominence. The son of Prescott and Dorothy Walker Bush, his maternal grandfather founded the prestigious “Walker Cup” golfing tournament and his paternal line was distantly related to England’s Queen Elizabeth II. Senator Prescott Bush was one of the nation’s more prominent senators in his day. George W. Bush’s great-grandfather George Herbert Walker co-founded Brown Brother Harriman the largest investment firm on Wall Street history. A descendant of former president Franklin Pierce, Barbara Bush’s father was the president of McCall Publishing Company.

On September 2, 1944 Lieutenant George Bush bailed out of the Avenger after bombing the island of Chichi Jima. When his plane was hit, he bailed out giving a bailout command to his two crewmen that some dispute. Apparently it was not heard and the crewmen plunged to their deaths. After he paddled his life raft to the island he was rescued hours later.

Early in his political career Bush indicated that that he didn’t want his Republican Party to attract segregationists and wanted instead “to attract Negroes” who believe “in a limited government.” Bush campaigned actively for the black vote on behalf of Texas Republican candidates, setting up an office in a black community and speaking before black audiences. Nevertheless, he made it clear that he saw a distinction between “responsible” Negro leaders and another type who supported civil rights. He did desire black votes, he makes clear in a July 1963 letter to William M. Michels but he was “not trying to out promise the Democrats” in wooing the black vote. The next year, while campaigning for a Senate seat Bush opposed the pending civil rights legislation. Utilizing the classic “state’s rights” argument he opposed the desegregation of public accommodations as unconstitutional. Bush maintained that the hearts of people must change and that laws nor coercion would bring about civil rights or equality. Bush said at the time “Texas has done a wonderful job” and that new legislation “of the public accommodations sort” was not needed. During this period Bush attributed the popularity of George Wallace, as demonstrated by the appeal to voters in the 1964 presidential primary races, to the “general concern from many responsible people” over the pending civil rights legislation.

Campaigning hard in the 1964 race for the Senate, Bush appealed to two of the most dreadful fears of his white constituency, that of being “displaced” by blacks enjoying unfair advantages, and being a victim of black violence. Displaying a mean political instinct that was later exemplified in the famous Willie Horton ads, Bush told a Corpus Christi crowd in September 1964 that he would endeavor to develop the local economy so that those “displaced” from their jobs “by the new civil rights act” would be employed. In defending his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act Bush revealed his opinion on what he viewed as black assaults on whites in New York City, “where the case is tried on the street.” Bush addressed the issue in recalling the difficult period writing in his autobiography, All the Best: My Life in Letters and Other Writings:

It was a difficult issue for me. I opposed discrimination of any kind and abhorred racism. Changes obviously needed to be made, but I agreed with Barry Goldwater and others who supported the concept of civil rights but felt strongly this bill was unconstitutional and threatened more rights than it protected. I decided I could not support the bill and said so in my campaign.

In spite of Bush’s focused opposition, ultimately his strategy fell short of its goal as Bush lost big, by 56 to 44 percent. Among African Americans Bush had virtually no support as only 3 percent of black Texans voted for him. His defeat forced a painful reassessment of his positions on civil rights and other issues dear to black America.

He agonized clearly because of his calculation that the moral side of the issue was not the most politically expedient path for him to follow. Rather it would involve fanning the flames of prejudice and motivating those inclined or driven to deny basic human and civil rights to African Americans. George Herbert Walker Bush’s conscience, in a era of emotional struggle across the nation over traditional racial boundaries and their perpetuation, was kicking in.

“What shall I do? How will I do it? I want to win but not at the expense of justice, not at the expense of the dignity of any man–not at the expense of hurting a friend [referring to his African American friend and supporter Tom Dixon] nor teaching my children a prejudice which I do not feel. . . ..”

The new approach of Bush to African Americans did not stem from a genuine racial liberalism, or a sincere support of black interests. Rather the Bush strategy relied heavily on symbolism and token gestures, as these having the advantage of minimizing the political fallout among his white supporters. In 1966, Bush sponsored a girl's softball team in an African American community that participated in a racially integrated tournament. Bush's continued opposition to substantive measures that provided a modicum of improvement in the black community was indicated by his response to a “rat bill” that would ensure that rodent eradication occur in urban areas. Describing the proposed legislation as a measure “against landowners,” he refused to support it. At this point, Bush stood against open housing and busing pointing to the abundance of “alternatives” to desegregation for blacks. Later, Representative Bush developed a taste for family planning, for African Americans at least. One congressman gave Bush the nickname of “rubbers” as a result of his fervent advocacy of black population control.

Winning over his opponent by a healthy margin, this time Bush, the only time in his career, George H.W. Bush received the support of the overwhelming majority of black voters. In Congress, Bush called for harsh measures against black rioters, proposing that any convicted rioters be fired from federal jobs. Later when he faced Lloyd Bensen in another effort to win a Senate seat, Bush lost big, only receiving 10 percent of the black vote.

George Bush, Willie Horton, and African American Progress

By 1988, black Americans were mired in frustration after having suffered through two terms of President Ronald Reagan, one term of President Jimmy Carter, and two terms of President Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. African American social and economic progress had by now stagnated and in many areas, experienced reverses. While since World War II the overall socioeconomic environment surrounding blacks had improved, making possible widespread, if circumscribed, financial gains, barriers to upward mobility had recently increased. In terms of income relative to the white population, scant progress had been made since the 1970s. In 1978, the ratio of black-to-white per capita income peaked at 59.4 percent. By 1987 this figure had fallen to 57.5 percent. While black families fared slightly better than black individuals, at 61.3 percent of white family income in 1970, it declined sharply during the 1978-1982 period. By 1987 it stood at only 56.1 percent of white family income. That this period would be marked by a similar, related decline in black male income is no surprise. Black male earnings for full-time workers was 80.7 percent of that of white full-time workers in 1970 and only 78 percent in 1987.

Combined with an acute concern about black employment and advancement, black America was gripped by a profound concern about rising crime. Political scientist Linda Faye Williams, relying on survey data, concluded in 1986 that African Americans accorded more importance to crime as an issue than did white Americans. An increasing number of African American youth reacted to hard economic times by turning to the sales of drugs and other illegal actions. By the late 1980s, astronomically high rates of incarceration in some urban areas resulted from illegal drugs being the principal income earning activity in their neighborhoods, as well as disparate sentencing practices. A well-known study released during 1990 found that on any given day in 1989 almost of four young black men between the ages of 20 and 29 were under some form of control by the criminal justice system received the most publicity. While 609,690 young black men within this age group were in prison, jail, on probation or parole, only approximately 436,000 were enrolled in college while comparable figures for whites were 4,600,000 in college and 1,054,508 in the criminal justice system.

Postwar American society had taken a heavy toll on the health of the black male whose life expectancy in 1987, 65.4 was shorter than that of the white male, white female or black female. Longevity for black men rose gradually through the 1970s from 60.5 years at birth in 1970 to 64.0 years in 1979, peaking at 65.6 years in 1984. By 1987 it stood at 65.4 compared to the black female rate of 73.8 and the white male rate at 72.1. Increasingly, however, African Americans were worried about AIDS, the lack of health insurance, and the vanishing urban hospitals. In the first nine months of 1988 blacks constituted 29.5 percent of the AIDS cases. Poor health care delivery services in the black community led to lower rates of recovery from many ailments. After the onset of various types of cancer, for example, blacks had lower rates of survival after five years.

While African Americans were increasingly concerned with substantive quality-of-life issues, George Bush in his quest for the presidency, reached out for a political strategy that had served him well throughout his relatively undistinguished career. “Willie” Horton was used as a symbol of African Americans and their interests. Living wages, social programs, and inflation were all subtly attacked by the focus on “Willie” Horton. Zeroing in on Horton’s real crimes would serve as a symbolic introduction to the politics of liberalism and the implied appeasement of black Americans. As Horton himself indicated, “Willie Horton” was a media invention concocted from the actual William Horton, Jr., a convicted murderer who in April 1987 raped a white woman while tying up her husband and then stealing his car, a crime that Horton unconvincingly denied. Bush tied this heinous act to the Massachusetts furlough program of the prison that Horton escaped from. In speech after speech, Bush and other Republican campaigners hammered away at this theme tying Dukakis with Horton, blacks and violent crime.


President George H. W. Bush

George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President

1989 to 1993

Birth: June 12, 1924, Milton, Massachusetts

Education: Yale

Religion: Episcopal

Profession: Politician

Political Party: Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Life Portrait of George H. Bush Dec 13, 1999, CSPAN



The connection to other African Americans, “liberal” and black interests was unmistakable. The implicit thematic message was ceaselessly repeated: Liberal policies, programs, sympathies, and taxes that blacks took advantage of were making life miserable for decent white Americans. The Republican support group “Americans for Bush” paid for the Horton ads and national tours for Horton’s victims.

This strategy was the brainchild of Lee Atwater, a southern-born Republican strategists who had no qualms about appealing to the rawest racial prejudices of white Americans. Atwater eagerly anticipated the confronting of Dukakis with the constant image of Horton, especially before southern white audiences, viewed as the key factor in a Republican victory. To the extent that Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was forced to give respect to Jesse Jackson and appeal to African American interests, Atwater sought to exploit this fact and win votes for George Bush. On his death bed, Atwater later apologized to William Horton, Jr., for vilifying him and, in effect, orchestrating his lynching by the media. Other factors dovetailed with the portrayal of Dukakis as weak and soft on crime and African Americans. During one presidential debate CNN newsman Bernard Shaw asked Governor Dukakis if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis unemotional response despite intense coaching from his staff on how to response emotionally to such a personal question, was thought by many, including the candidate himself, to have doomed his campaign.

George Herbert Walker Bush achieved a convincing victory over Michael Dukakis in the November 1988 presidential election. Bush won 47.9 million votes to his opponent's 41.0 million, and 426 to 112 electoral votes.

The Bush Administration and African Americans

As vice president under Reagan, George Bush endorsed the actions that the administration undertook against African Americans and their interests. As the 1988 campaign heated up Bush cautiously sought black support. After a mid-May 1988 meeting at Bush’s home with prominent African Americans including the SCLC's Joseph Lowery, the NAACP's Benjamin L. Hooks said that the black leaders discussed the “great many failures” of the Reagan-Bush administration. The vice president was urged to “reorder” the priorities under a future Bush administration. Joseph E. Lowery said that he hoped to see a new “sensitivity” to the “devastation” the Reagan era had wrought on black America, but pessimistically noted that Bush showed no inclination to trim the defense budget to aid the poor. Two months later Bush met with black leaders at a breakfast organized by African American CEO, Joshua L. Smith, hoping to pick up votes deriving from the fallout from the rift between Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson.

In the aftermath of Bush’s successful use of “Willie Horton” as a means to enlist white support, the majority of the national African American leadership was thoroughly convinced of Bush’s insincerity with regard to civil rights. On almost every issue, Bush stood firm against the wishes and desires of black Americans. Jesse Jackson deplored Bush’s use of “quotas” as a code word akin to the traditional ones of “state’s rights’ and “law and order.” Jackson went on to say:

It’s a sad day when an American president consciously promotes racial fear and division in our country as his main means of governing and of being reelected.

The first African American to head a major political party, Ronald H. Brown, the Democratic National Committee Chairman, said that Bush “chose the politics of Jesse Helms and David Duke instead of the politics of Martin Luther King.” The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s president Joseph Lowery said, “He’s more concerned about kindness and gentleness to the rich people in Kuwait than he is to the poor folks in Kansas City.”

Aside from President Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the U. S. Supreme Court, the appointment of Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was his most important African American appointment. Other black appointees included Constance Newman as the head of the Office of Personnel Management, and Louis Sullivan as the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Powell’s appointment was a milestone of sorts as he then stood in the most powerful position an African American had ever occupied in the history of the United States. Despite its virtual meaninglessness in terms of national black political power, at least for the short term, it nevertheless signified a new stage in the relationships between black appointees and chief executives. The inclusion of Powell in heretofore closed meetings of American policy-making marks a new level of diversity at the highest strata of American political life, heralding new opportunities for African Americans amenable to the political establishment.

Bush’s Drug War on the Black Community

Lured by agents of President George Bush to Lafayette Park across from the White House to purchase crack cocaine from a federal agent, Keith Jackson would be the fall guy who would serve as the Bush administration’s graphic example of the pervasiveness of drugs. The teen’s whose lack of knowledge of both the location and function of the White House after living almost two decades in the nation’s capital illustrated the psychic distance between many young African Americans and their nation’s mainstream political life and institutions. Keith Jackson was one of the first casualties in the Bush administration’s “War on Drugs.” Thousands upon thousands of black victims would follow as the politically opportunist policies and programs were put into operation. Taking advantage of a heightened national concern about the spread of drugs and crime, spurred by the upsurge of crack cocaine addiction, George Bush sought to maintain his political momentum by again using a black criminal to mobilize his constituency. Bush’s five-star general in this was the morally culpable William J. Bennett, the National Drug Policy Director, or “Drug Czar,” who utilized the bully pulpit to attack African Americans, and directed the big guns of his army squarely at the black community. Contemptuous of the underlying causes of drug usage and crime, Bennett led the fight for a massive expansion of the nation’s prison system, arguing for tough penalties for all categories of drug offenses, while virtually ignoring the need for more drug treatment programs. Bennett’s emergency plan for the District of Columbia, relied heavily on the expansion of prison space and devoted only 5 percent of its budget to treatment and education. Directly attacking Washington, D. C.’s embattled mayor, Marion Barry, Bennett called the District a test case in the War on Drugs. Under the Bush administration the inequities of the fight against drugs became even more graphic. While African Americans were only roughly 12 percent of the users of illegal drugs, they represented some 41 percent of those arrested on cocaine or heroin charges.

George H. W. Bush and Civil Rights

Before Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1991 he discussed it with his old friend, William T. Coleman, the former Secretary of Transportation. An African American conservative, Coleman urged him to reconsider, and reported that Bush was moved by his arguments to the point of tears but said, “Bill, I would love to sign it but they tell me it’s a quota bill. What can I do?” Facing a battle for reelection the following year, Bush signed a slightly altered piece of legislation that was substantially the same as the Civil Rights Restoration Act. Yet Bush insisted that he had stuck to his principled opposition to “quotas,” explaining “it’s very technical and all I know is I can simply certifying it is not a quota bill.”

The announcement by the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights, Michael L. Williams, an African American, that “race-exclusive” scholarships were illegal in the Bush’s administration’s view set off immediate controversy concerning this policy. For two decades colleges and universities had used minority scholarships to increase the black and minority enrollment. Bush’s policy would immediately threaten the educational careers of tens of thousands of students. The announcement ignited such a firestorm of controversy that it forced an immediate postponement of the policy.

The Supreme Court Nomination of Clarence Thomas

In late 1991, the nomination of the Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court caused even more than the considerable amount of controversy that had been anticipated. Initially, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for the former head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) had went smooth. Sailing toward his confirmation, Thomas was suddenly faced with charges that he sexually harassed attorney Anita Hill during his tenure at the EEOC. Stunned, the 43 year-old Thomas vehemently denied harassment had occurred, as the nation became embroiled in a new level of debate over the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Emerging from impoverished surroundings in the rural south, Clarence Thomas became one of the most notorious black conservatives in the nation during the Reagan administration following his appointment as the head of the EEOC only nine months after being named the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education. Clarence Thomas, more than anything else, was proud of the new clout he had. Once Thomas bragged to his colleagues:

. . . Think about this. I can pick up the phone and get an appointment with the president any time I need that. Coretta Scott King can’t get that. Jesse Jackson can’t get that.

Yet, the new sense of self-importance and well-connectedness could not completely erase the pain he felt from the alienation and rejection of him by his fellow African Americans. Thomas spoke candidly of his suffering in 1990, “[I]t’s lonely, I mean really lonely. I hate that people of my race think, ‘Here's this guy bashing everything that's good for us.’"

Far from repairing the tattered fabric of President George Bush’s relations with the African American community, the Thomas Supreme Court nomination ripped it into shreds. Although the nomination of the conservative ideologue split the black community, there was generally a refusal to support his nomination until the height of the controversy. Thomas’ record on enforcing civil rights while heading the EEOC was often cited as concrete proof of his moral bankruptcy. During seven and a half years as the head of the agency, charged with the enforcement of federal civil rights laws barring racial discrimination in employment, class action suits based on statistical evidence of discrimination were dropped as a means of enforcement. Under the new interpretation of the law, to prove discrimination, one would have to demonstrate direct injury resulting from it, often difficult, if not impossible, to do.

From the beginning the Congressional Black Caucus opposed the nomination of Thomas, and worked quietly to block his confirmation. Rep. Major R. Owen (D-NY) termed Thomas, a “monstrous negative role model,” a “Benedict Arnold.” He went on to say, “The elevation of this man to the Supreme Court would be a gross insult, a slap in the face of all African Americans.” Indeed, Thomas’s resume include a long stint serving on the board of the Lincoln Review that was tied to one J. A. Parker, a well-reimbursed figure tied to the apartheid government of South Africa. Ultimately, Clarence Thomas, pushed to his psychic limit, declared himself to be the victim of a “high-tech lynching” as he and President Bush allied to cry racism at those who opposed his nomination. While Thomas was eventually confirmed, victory was costly for President Bush, who lost support among women and blacks. The Bush campaign faltered throughout 1992, highlighted by a conservative-dominated Republican National Convention in June. While explicit racism was downplayed, African American interests were relentlessly attacked by conservative Republican leaders, including commentator Patrick Buchanan and Congressman Newt Gingrich (R-GA).

Bush’s loss to Arkansas’s Governor Bill Clinton followed an entire summer in which he trailed in the polls. In August 1992, Clinton was far ahead of President Bush in the polls, 60 to 34 percent. In the end, Clinton defeated Bush winning 43 percent to the incumbent’s 39 percent. Third party independent candidate for president, financier H. Ross Perot, was also a factor in the election, finishing a distant third with a sizeable 19 percent of the vote. Once again, African American aspirations were fired by the prospect of a return to the somewhat mythical era of a Democratic administration that was less hostile to their interests. A few remembered that those administrations, Roosevelt’s, Truman’s, Kennedy’s, Johnson’s, and Carter’s were marked by an inertia and resistance only broken by the aggressive thrust of the black drive for freedom.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.