“So Mr. President, tell us how you have worked through the issue of race in your own life,” Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey rose to ask on the Senate floor last July. “Tell us more about how you grappled with the moral imperatives embodied in race relations.” Bradley said he was disturbed by Bush’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act in 1964, his use of the convicted rapist Willie Horton as a campaign symbol in 1988, his opposition, since dropped, to the 1990 and 1991 Civil Rights Restoration Acts, and his nomination of the modestly qualified Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
“What does your record mean?” Bradley asked. “What have you stood for?”
Bradley’s questions are central as President Bush prepares to run for reelection in 1992. Bush first established a record on racial issues in Texas in the 1960s. Some of the twists and turns of his public statements might seem to confirm the view that his positions on racial questions are mostly a matter of political expediency. Running for the Senate in 1964, Bush campaigned against the Civil Rights Act, criticizing its provisions for the desegregation of hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations as an unconstitutional intrusion of federal power on “States’ rights.” Six years later, he made much of his support for the “Philadelphia Plan,” the original federal program mandating quotas for hiring blacks. In the 1960s, if not today, George Bush was trying to reconcile the tradition of racial liberalism he grew up with, embodied by his father, Senator Prescott Bush, Jr., and his ambition to build a national political career in the conservative Sun Belt.
1. “The finest concept of States’ rights”
“I do not think the Republican Party should be a rallying place for segregationists,” George Bush told the Houston Press in March 1963. “I want to attract Negroes into the Republican Party. I think the Negroes who believe in a limited government can help educate all levels of American society against class and race division.”1
Two weeks earlier, Bush had been elected chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. He was thirty-eight years old, the president and chief executive officer of Zapata Off-Shore, a successful oil-drilling business with operations in Trinidad, Mexico, and Kuwait. He was on record as supporting Barry Goldwater for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination. He was also serious about attracting black voters to the party.
In June 1963, as Harris County chairman, Bush established an organization of black Republicans called the Republican Alliance and opened an office in a black neighborhood. He appeared before black groups. “I’m citing [to them] their almost block voting for Democrats who have been outright racists against Republicans who are far from being in that category,” Bush told the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle reporter concluded, “Bush is walking a tightrope. While appealing to the Negro vote, he cannot afford to alienate ultra conservatives…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.