“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 who are swinging more and more to his party.”2 Bush would continue to walk this tightrope for the next seven years.
Bush’s overtures to black voters were in keeping with two of Prescott Bush’s political maxims: that people who have enjoyed the privileges of great wealth and superior education have an obligation to serve others and that government has to serve all the people. As a senior at Yale in 1948, young George Bush led the campus drive for the United Negro College Fund. The elder Bush served as Connecticut chairman for the Fund in 1951.
During his last two years in the Senate Prescott Bush had been a strong supporter of civil rights legislation. In March 1962, a week after announcing that he would retire at the end of his term, Prescott Bush and a bipartisan group of northern senators offered legislation to protect the right of blacks to vote, to hasten school integration, to promote decent housing, to discourage violent resistance to desegregation, and to create a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity. This legislative package was a direct forerunner of the comprehensive civil rights bill that President Kennedy belatedly introduced to Congress in June 1963.3
In August 1963, after Martin Luther King led the March on Washington, the civil rights and labor leaders behind the march used the occasion to mount an extensive lobbying campaign on behalf of Kennedy’s controversial civil rights bill. Two weeks later George Bush announced his candidacy for the US Senate seat held by the liberal-populist Democrat Ralph Yarborough, making opposition to Kennedy’s civil rights bill the centerpiece of his campaign. “I believe in the finest concept of States’ rights—in keeping the government closest to the people,” Bush told a press conference in Austin. He acknowledged that the states’ rights doctrine might be repugnant to blacks and advocates of racial integration, but he insisted that moral persuasion under present laws was the only correct approach to the racial problem. “The question of a person’s heart in the civil rights quest is going to determine the solution,” Bush said.4
According to the San Antonio Express, Bush “emphatically” opposed the provisions in the civil rights bill which would guarantee blacks equal access to restaurants, hotels, restrooms, and other public accommodations. “Texas has done a wonderful job” on civil rights, he said. “We don’t need additional legislation of the public accommodations sort.”5 At the time, legally segregated public accommodations were common in East Texas and not unknown in Houston.
Baine Kerr, a senior partner at the Houston law firm of Baker and Botts who served as legal counsel for Zapata Off-Shore and who was a close friend of the Bush family, suggests that Bush ran for the Senate in order to emulate his father. But when questioned by conservatives about his differences with his father, Bush replied, “I am more oriented toward the separation of powers between the federal government and the states.” It was a revealing answer. Since the term “separation of powers” refers historically to the relationship between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government—not the relationship between the state and national governments—Bush’s euphemism signaled his support for “States’ rights” while muting, at least rhetorically, his differences with his father.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy and the succession of Lyndon Johnson in November 1963 transformed the politics of the civil rights bill. The bill Kennedy sponsored was thought to have only modest prospects for passage. After the assassination LBJ presented it as the legacy of the slain President and put all his considerable parliamentary skills behind it.
Ralph Yarborough, who as a member of the Commerce Committee had voted for the bill in October 1963, said he would vote for the bill on the floor of the Senate too. On March 17, 1964, George Bush warned an audience at the Dallas Country Club of Yarborough’s position on the civil rights bill. “I think most Texans share my opposition to this legislation,” Bush said.6
The same week that Bush spoke a Dallas polling firm hired by labor leaders supporting Yarborough took a confidential survey of opinion in four Texas congressional districts. The poll found widespread opposition to desegregation in public accommodations. In metropolitan Houston, 67 percent of respondents were opposed to a federal law allowing blacks and whites equal access to restaurants and hotels; only 27 percent favored such a law. And the opposition was bipartisan; 64 percent of Democratic voters were opposed.
But the Kennedy-Johnson civil rights bill also included provisions that covered employment and voting rights as well—and these were not unpopular. The same poll found that at least 73 percent of all respondents in each of the four congressional districts favored legislation protecting the right of blacks to vote. No fewer than 62 percent in all four districts favored laws to guarantee equal employment opportunity. Laws to protect employment and voting rights were a minimum of 28 percentage points more popular than the protection of equal access to public accommodations, suggesting that Texans would support civil rights legislation, so long as it didn’t require mixing blacks and whites in social situations.7
Bush’s opposition to the bill put him in the company of segregationists. In the spring of 1964, George Wallace ran with an openly segregationist appeal against LBJ in the Democratic presidential primaries in three northern states and won 34 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana, and 45 percent in Maryland.8 Bush told The Dallas Morning News that Wallace’s showing “indicates to me that there must be a general concern from many responsible people over the civil rights bill all over the nation.” He interpreted the Wallace vote as a protest vindicating his position against the fair employment practices and public accommodations sections of the bill, which he described as “unconstitutional.”9
In early April 1964, Senator Edward Kennedy charged that those opposing the bill were hate-mongers. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Bush replied in a speech to the Downtown Republican Club in Houston. “We all deplore the hate mongers of this world. The only thing I hate to see is our Constitution trampled in the process of trying to solve civil rights problems.” Bush insisted that the bill would “make further inroads into the rights of individuals and the states, and even provide for the ultimate destruction of our trial by jury system.”10
Three other conservative Republicans had entered the Republican senatorial primary. While Bush had outspent and out-organized them, they played on suspicions among grassroots Texas conservatives about Bush’s East Coast pedigree and the liberalism of his father. In the spring of 1964, a group in Dallas circulated a pamphlet called “Who’s Behind the Bushes.” It revealed that five of Bush’s campaign contributors were members of the Council on Foreign Relations and reminded Republican voters of Prescott Bush’s support for civil rights legislation. In the two weeks before the June 8 Republican primary election, Bush responded to this criticism by reformulating his opposition to the civil rights bill.
Here it is worth recalling that in the spring of 1964, Texas newspaper editors were fascinated by stories of criminal violence by blacks, especially in New York City. A mugging on the New York subway could make the front page in Dallas. When Bush criticized the civil rights bill in June 1964 for denying jury trials in job discrimination cases, he cited New York as an example of “where the case is tried in the street,” adding that New York State had both a fair employment practices commission and a law banning discrimination in public accommodation laws. By raising the specter of black violence against whites, Bush was further distancing himself from the liberal racial politics of the East Coast.
Bush won the Republican primary and set his sights on Yarborough. “I favor keeping government close to the people, States’ rights in the constitutional concept,” Bush was quoted as saying in The Dallas Morning News. “He [Yarborough] favors government by bureau and handout.”11
Meanwhile, President Johnson was pressing the Civil Rights Act through Congress. He marshaled seventy-one votes to break the filibuster of the southern Democrats, and on June 19, 1964, the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act. Twenty-seven Republicans voted in favor of the bill. Barry Goldwater and Texas Senator John Tower voted against it.
2. “Extremist groups”
“Everybody was against [the Civil Rights Act] and thought it was hastily done. Johnson was capitalizing on the grief of the assassination…. We felt [its passage] was an aberration of the legislative process,” Jim Leonard, Bush’s Senate campaign manager in 1964, told me.
Leonard, a native Texan, tutored Bush on the subtleties of campaigning in Texas. He instructed George to stop wearing button-down collar shirts and to stop using difficult words like “profligate.” He put Bush on the road with a bus and a country-western band called the Black Mountain Boys. The “Bandwagon for Bush” would pull into the courthouse square of small Texas cities and the group would sing, “The sun’s going to shine in the Senate some day/George Bush is going to chase them liberals away.”12 After the crowd gathered, Bush would give his stump speech.
Rhetoric attacking the Civil Rights Act was a staple of the “Bandwagon for Bush.” On September 7, 1964, the road show drew a crowd of three thousand people in Quanah, a small city near the Oklahoma border. According to a report in The Dallas Morning News, Bush told the crowd that “union dues are being used today for the promotion of extremist groups,” that the United Auto Workers “guided and influenced” the civil rights movement by providing organizers and funds to such groups as the Committee for Equal Opportunity, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Bush even quoted the scandalous amounts that these “extremist groups” had received; the NAACP, for example, had received $15,000 from the union. The report closed by noting that Bush said the UAW “even donated $50 to the militant Martin Luther King.” It is not clear from the article if the adjective “militant” was Bush’s or the reporter’s.
In his campaign literature, Bush phrased his position on civil rights more positively. One brochure quoted him as saying, “I believe that the solution to this grave problem lies in the hearts and good will of all people and that sweeping federal legislation, like the Civil Rights Act, can never fully succeed. I favor job opportunity and educational opportunity for all justly administered by the state and local government. I oppose lawless attempts to try the issue in the streets.”
In his speeches Bush portrayed the Civil Rights Act as a threat to the interests of white people. In Corpus Christi on September 24, 1964, Bush also promised “to devote great effort to develop attractive job opportunities both for our growing population and for those displaced from…jobs by the new civil rights act.”13 And on October 27 Bush told hundreds of workers at the Ling-Temco-Vought cafeteria in Grand Prairie that “the new civil rights act was passed to protect 14 percent of the people. I’m also worried about the other 86 percent.”14
Ralph Yarborough, now retired and living in Austin, says he never responded to Bush’s attacks on civil rights. Instead, he played on public apprehensions about some of Barry Goldwater’s less guarded pronouncements on nuclear weapons and noted that Bush had once said he was “100 percent for Goldwater.” Yarborough remained ahead in the polls.
In the final week of the campaign, Bush attacked Yarborough for encouraging racial divisiveness. Addressing a Goldwater rally in Houston, Bush described him as a liberal who “tries to hyphenate Americans. The left-wing speaks of Latin-American and Negro-Americans…sets class against class, race against race.” Bush boasted of campaigning for the Negro vote in Houston, apparently a reference to his work as Harris County chairman.15 On election day Bush ran ahead of Goldwater but lost to Yarborough by 56 to 44 percent. According to The Houston Post, Bush received less than 3 percent of the black vote statewide.
A few weeks later, Bush was invited by his fellow Yale man William F. Buckley to contribute to a post-election symposium in The National Review on “The Republican Party and the Conservative Movement.” Bush said that Johnson’s landslide victory was not a repudiation of conservatism but of conservative tactics, which in 1964 relied on ideological attacks on the liberal welfare state.
“We should repackage our philosophy,” Bush concluded. “Emphasize the positive, eliminate the negative, warn of the dangers from the left but do so without always questioning the patriotism of those who hold Liberal views,…” Bush said. “Conservatism can and will survive—it needs to be practical and positive. It has to be fair.” 16 In 1965, George Bush repackaged his philosophy and his racial policies.
3. “The Action Congressman”
“I generally favor the goals as outlined in the Great Society—a better life for all, elimination of poverty and disease, fair play in civil rights and domestic tranquility on all fronts,” Bush said in a speech at the University of Texas in June 1965. “I dissent, however, from the viewpoint prevalent in the present day liberal community that a great society can or should be built solely by the federal government—or any government.”
Nonetheless, Bush took part in President Johnson’s War on Poverty. The lead agency in the War on Poverty was the Office of Economic Opportunity, which invited cities around the country to submit proposals for broad-based community programs to fight poverty. In Houston, civic leaders put together an operation called the Houston–Harris County Economic Opportunity Organizations. In October 1965, Bush was named to the fourteen-member Executive Committee, but he apparently did not contribute much to its deliberations.17 Later that same month Bush was named to head a national Republican committee charged with taking “the initiative in fighting hard core unemployment.”18
But Bush’s main concern was running for Congress. According to William Cassin, who was then a lawyer for the Harris County Republican Party, Bush met privately with Texas state legislators in 1965 to draw up a congressional redistricting plan that would create a Republican district on the west side of Houston. The resulting 7th Congressional District consisted of precincts that had voted 56.7 percent for Bush in 1964, and included about 8,000 black voters, about 5 percent of the total.19 In February 1966, Bush resigned as president, chairman, and CEO of Zapata to run for Congress.20 He also resigned from the Executive Committee of the Houston antipoverty organization, having served less than five months.21
Bush continued to politick in the black community, but in 1966, his efforts were somewhat different from those of 1963. Bush belonged to the Houston Club, a downtown businessman’s social club, where he sometimes got a massage from a black man named Bobby Moore. Moore also worked with young blacks in Acres Homes, a black neighborhood on the west side of Houston. When Moore couldn’t find a black businessman to sponsor a girls-under-eighteen softball team, he asked Bush. Moore recalls that Bush immediately agreed and accompanied him to a sporting goods store to buy the uniforms and equipment. In July 1966, the George Bush All Stars, playing before a crowd of five hundred, won a racially integrated softball tournament, also sponsored by George Bush, at Studemont Park in Acres Homes. A photograph of Bush and the top two teams appeared in the Forward Times, a local weekly newspaper for black readers. Bobby Moore, now retired and living in Houston, says that at the time a racially integrated sporting event was quite unusual in Houston.22
An old friend of Bush’s told me that his involvement with the All Stars was more “personal not political.” Whatever drew him to help the team, however, Bush was, as in 1963, trying to attract the black vote without alienating ultraconservative whites. But the balancing act was growing more difficult. In the summer of 1966, the slogan “Black Power” was beginning to attract many urban blacks resentful of what they saw as the paternalism of white liberals and discouraged by the slow pace of racial progress. When the rhetoric of Black Power coincided with an explosion of race riots in many cities, many whites became frightened. By September 1966, a white backlash was growing, and John Kraft, a pollster for the Texas Republican Party, reported that comments about civil rights had more than doubled in the course of several months, “the majority of which seemed concerned about increasing control.” Another Kraft poll found that in Bush’s district, the NAACP was more unpopular than the John Birch Society. 23
Bush’s Democratic opponent was the local district attorney, Frank Briscoe, who was said by many blacks to take personal satisfaction in sending black people to jail. “Black people would’ve voted for an ox before they would’ve voted for Briscoe,” recalls the Reverend Floyd Williams, pastor at the Antioch Baptist Church in Acres Homes. “Yet they were afraid of the Republicans.”
Bush chose to run a positive, non-partisan campaign, emphasizing personal responsiveness, not Republican ideologies. “I will be an action Congressman,” Bush said launching his campaign in September 1966. “I will not attempt to appeal to the white backlash,” Bush told The Wall Street Journal. “I am in touch with the ’60s.’24 His billboards omitted any mention of the Republican Party.
On urban disorders, Bush linked his criticism of black militancy with an appeal for biracial cooperation. “When the excesses of the cry of Black Power are permitted to go unchallenged,” he was quoted as saying by The Houston Post, “then we are not getting the leadership to protect our citizens. As Congressman, I will work with the Negro and white leadership to root out the cause of these disturbances.”
Williams invited Bush and Briscoe to a candidates’ forum at his church. Both were asked about the so-called “rat bill” then under consideration by Congress, which would require that rodents be eradicated in urban neighborhoods. Williams remembers that Briscoe didn’t know anything about it. Bush asked to read something about the bill. “This bill is against landowners,” Williams recalls Bush telling the crowd. “It may cost me your endorsement and your votes, but I can’t vote against landowners. I cannot vote for this bill.”
One issue that Bush tried to avoid during the 1966 congressional campaign was the open housing bill, then pending in Congress. The legislation, forbidding discrimination in real estate transactions, was promoted by President Johnson as the natural next step in the civil rights program. State Republican leaders were strongly against the bill, according to Jim Leonard, Bush’s former campaign manager, as were most white home-owners in Bush’s district. Frank Briscoe declared his opposition to open housing and charged that Bush “hopes to obscure his views on issues and substitute quips for stands on issues.” By October, Bush had come out in opposition to open housing legislation, insisting that there were “wonderful alternatives in the field of housing that will help all persons attain home ownership.” 25
At the end of the campaign, Bush took out a full-page ad in the Forward Times, the black weekly, in which he was photographed with sleeves rolled up, jacket slung over his shoulder, a style made popular by New York City Mayor John Lindsay, Bush’s classmate at Yale. “Vote for the man who really cares about the things that are worrying you these days,” the ad said. “Elect George Bush to Congress and watch the action!”26
Bush defeated Briscoe by 58–42 percent. Reverend Williams estimates that Bush received between 60 and 70 percent of the votes cast by black people.
4. “Gross Stupidity”
In late July 1967, the mood in Washington was close to panicky. The nation’s worst race riot in twenty-five years had just exploded in Detroit, resulting in the deaths of forty-three people and the occupation of the city by eight thousand National Guardsmen. Black Power demonstrators had marched on the US Capitol, disrupting congressional proceedings. Congressmen debated how to protect themselves from possible attacks by demonstrators in the galleries. 27
During his first six months in office, Bush fell in with a group of young Republican moderates who agreed that something should be done to calm such tensions. He befriended another freshman Republican representative, William O. Cowger of Kentucky, who had served as mayor of Louisville between 1961 to 1964, and Bush successfully campaigned to get Cowger elected as the leader of the freshman Republican class of 1967, saying that the party needed leaders experienced in urban affairs.28 He also befriended William A. Steiger, a freshman Republican from Wisconsin. According to Steiger’s top aide, Virginia Drummy, the three freshman Republicans came under the wing of Charles Goodell, a moderate Republican from New York who headed the Planning and Research Committee of the House Republican Conference. Goodell selected Bush to serve as head of the Republican Task Force on Job Opportunities and Welfare.
Goodell was a respected lawyer from Jamestown, New York, who later opposed the Vietnam War. William L. Gifford, Goodell’s administrative assistant, recently recalled that the pair “came from somewhat similar backgrounds. Bush went to Yale. Goodell went to Williams and then to Yale Law School. They had both played baseball in college. They had both served in the Navy. Goodell’s underlying argument was that Republicans had to get out from under the burden of always being negative. He and Bush shared the logic that Republicans had to be active, had to be for something.”
On July 27, 1967, the four congressmen wrote to President Johnson proposing a Neighborhood Action Crusade “to defuse the tensions now threatening the lives and property of urban Americans.” They envisioned the Crusade as a national movement of “autonomous local programs organized, developed, and directed completely by local citizens.” They urged the creation of “largely local volunteer organizations to work constructively in rallying the stabilizing influence that exists in the neighborhoods.”
The Neighborhood Action Crusade was a belated Republican alternative to the War on Poverty, and spiritual forefather of Bush’s Thousand Points of Light program. If there was something slightly wishful about a federal program to create local activism, there was no mistaking the program’s Republican premise: fostering voluntarism and leadership in poor black neighborhoods was a better way to prevent civil disorder than federal antipoverty programs. Bush and his three colleagues sent the Neighborhood Action Crusade proposal to all fifty state governors and the mayors of 150 cities.
On August 1, 1967, Bush took to the floor of Congress to promote the Neighborhood Action Crusade. “The overwhelming majority of Negro Americans are dedicated citizens, strongly opposed to disorder and violence,” he declared. “Involvement of these, our fellow citizens, in keeping the peace within their own neighborhoods is essential to the resolution of the current crisis in our cities.” Bush said that the federal government had to take the lead—and provide modest funding. “Local government would provide administrative services and coordination of the program. The Federal Government would provide the funds and equipment to support the local effort.”29
Bush never said how much the crusade would cost, but insisted it would address one of the fundamental causes of riots, “a basic breakdown of communications among Negro Americans, the leaders of their organizations, and the elected officials of our country.”
Never was that “basic breakdown of communications” more evident than in Houston two weeks later. On Saturday, August 11, 1967, a front-page story in The Houston Post reported that “seven telescopic sights for high-powered rifles were ordered shipped to the headquarters of the Harris County Community Action Program.” HCCA was the new name of the Houston–Harris County Economic Opportunity Organizations, the antipoverty group on whose executive committee George Bush had once served. The story suggested that the local wing of the War on Poverty was being used to arm unknown gunmen.
Two days later, George Bush was on the floor of Congress demanding a federal investigation. “In this critical summer period of civil unrest,” Bush said, “a citizen of Houston might well believe the scopes were ordered for use in a disturbance after reading of the sniping incidents in Detroit, Newark, and other cities.” He said that, at a minimum, HCCA officials were guilty of “gross stupidity.” Bush’s speech received huge headlines in the Houston newspapers.
“We had one hell of a donnybrook here for about ten days,” recalls Francis Williams, a Houston attorney who was then executive director of HCCA. Williams, who laughs about the incident now, twenty-four years later, says that Bush never asked him to explain how the rifle sights were ordered. If he had, Williams says, he would have found a much less sensational story.
As a government agency, HCCA was allowed to requisition surplus government goods from the armed forces. HCCA’s property control officer was George Miller, a sixty-four-year-old public-spirited white man and a retired deputy sheriff. Miller had obtained a military truck for the organization and several gasoline tanks which were used for water storage. Early in the summer of 1967, Miller requisitioned a surplus microscope from the armed forces and was turned down. A few weeks later, on a visit to Kelley Air Force Base in San Antonio, Miller saw that deteriorated rifle sights were available. Miller had the vague idea that somebody at HCCA could use the lenses from the rifle sights to teach young people about optics. He put in a requisition form for seven rifle sights. An official at the Air Force base tipped off the intelligence unit of the Houston Police Department. Local law enforcement officials, all of them white, were deeply suspicious of the local antipoverty program anyway. They showed the HCCA requisition order to reporters. Somehow George Bush got a copy, which he waved on the floor of Congress.
When George Miller told HCCA’s story, “he talked with a Texas twang and he was wearing western clothes,” Francis Williams recalls. “He didn’t exactly look like someone who was going to give rifle sights to black militants. In fact, the whole thing was galling to the real black militants around here [Houston]. They knew he would be the last person to ever help them.”
Sargent Shriver, the head of the embattled Office of Economic Opportunity, wrote an angry letter to Texas Senator John Tower, who had seconded Bush’s call for a congressional investigation, noting that there were no rifles, no militants, no snipers, and no grounds for the charges. “The Houston rifle sight episode is a perfect example of the ‘charge now—someone else will pay later approach’ which typifies many malicious allegations against OEO,” Shriver said. Ten days later Bush lamely replied that he wasn’t satisfied with Miller or Shriver’s explanation and repeated his call for a congressional investigation. Soon the issue was forgotten.
The Neighborhood Action Crusade, its vagueness notwithstanding, was not an unworthy proposal. If President Bush proposed anything comparable today, he would be hailed as a statesman. But in the summer of 1967, George Bush’s rhetoric was unconnected to his actions. Bush apparently made little effort to promote the Neighborhood Action Crusade in Houston. The local black weekly, which had covered Bush’s softball team, did not run any articles on it; The Houston Post ran only a short wire service item. And when the explosive charges about the rifle sights hit the papers, Bush chose to grab headlines instead of trying to find out what had happened. There was a “breakdown in communications.”
5. His most glorious moment”
In the spring of 1968, the filing deadline for congressional candidates in the 7th District came and went. No Democrat had chosen to run against Bush. When asked why, the chairman of the local Democratic Party replied, “George Bush has proved himself a better Democrat than Republican.”30
Since 1965 Bush had evolved from a Barry Goldwater conservative into a Charles Goodell–style moderate. On domestic policy, Bush continued to propose alternatives to the War on Poverty. On March 6, 1968, he and seven other House Republicans led by Goodell urged creation of a $2.5 billion Human Renewal Fund, calling for a $6 billion cut in low-priority spending, and for $2 billion in spending “to meet urgent human needs and the urban crisis in our nation.”
Bush also continued to promote the Neighborhood Action Crusade, which he claimed had been endorsed by ten governors, thirteen mayors, four senators, and seventy-six representatives. In March 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders issued its report, which did not mention Bush’s proposal but supported “neighborhood action task forces as joint community-government efforts through which more effective communication can be achieved, and the delivery of city services of ghetto residents improved.”31 Two weeks later, Martin Luther King was assassinated and American cities became engulfed in another wave of violence.
“Riots cannot be permitted to blossom,” Bush said in a speech on the floor of the House on April 9. “But in addition to strong, immediate law enforcement, I also advocate involvement. It is important that those citizens who have a stake in the community, especially those in the so-called ghetto areas who could be burned out by riot situations, be active and constructively channeled toward community involvement. This is why I am so enthusiastic about concepts like the Neighborhood Action Crusade….32
Later that day, Bush sent a letter to President Johnson, urging him to put the power of the presidency behind the Neighborhood Action Crusade. “I know you are swamped with suggestions,” Bush said in a handwritten note, “but I did want to again call to your attention this plan which many of us feel would be helpful in keeping the peace.” Johnson’s response was perfunctory.33
The next day, April 10, the open housing bill came up for a vote. Bush had opposed open housing during the 1966 campaign. The leader of the House Republicans, Gerald Ford of Michigan, had declared his opposition. But Goodell led a rebellion of moderate Republicans, and enlisted a group of young House Republicans, including Bush’s friend William Steiger, to lobby in favor of the bill.34 While Bush had misgivings about the bill, on the final vote he broke with the Republican leadership and sided with Goodell.
“I had to weigh the good points against the bad,” he was quoted as saying the next day in The Houston Post, “and on balance, I decided the pluses outweighed the minuses.”35
Bush was inundated with complaints from enraged white constituents. He went back to the floor of the House the very next day to talk about the riots and his (updated) response to them.
“The sight on television of men, women, and children looting stores and burning buildings have [sic] sickened me and from the mail I’ve been getting, my constituents feel the same way,” Bush said. Of the first 119 riot suspects brought to court, Bush said, 10 percent had worked for the federal government.36 He introduced a bill to remove from federal employment persons who engage in unlawful acts connected with civil disorder. He did not mention the Neighborhood Action Crusade.
When this legislation by press release failed to blunt the anger of his constituents over his support of open housing, Bush went back to Houston. He attended a community forum held in the auditorium of Memorial High School in the western suburbs of Houston. There were hundreds of people there, most of them unconvinced by Bush’s explanation for his vote, some of them openly furious.
Marjorie Arsht, a local Republican political activist and a friend of Bush’s, was there. “You have to understand, people here were absolutely horrified [by Bush’s support for open housing]. It was a canceling out of everything they stood for. George got up and read some of the wires he had received. One of them said, ‘I had you in my house and here you would destroy everything you stood for.’ George stood up there and he said, ‘the idea that our young people could come back from fighting in Vietnam and our government would tell them where they could or could not live…. I would never be able to do that in my whole life. I would die first.’ It was impressive, sincere. It was from conviction. When he got through, he got a standing ovation. It was his most glorious moment.”
Bush himself recalled the incident in his 1987 autobiography, Looking Forward—one of the few stories he has told about his congressional career. “More than twenty years later, I can truthfully say that nothing I’ve experienced in public life, before or since, has measured up to the feeling I had when I went home that night.”37
Bush did not mention the Neighborhood Action Crusade or the seven telescopic rifle sights in his autobiography. Nor the fact that he had originally opposed the open housing legislation he had come around to supporting.
6. The “Philadelphia Plan”
After April 1968, George Bush apparently lost his enthusiasm for the Neighborhood Action Crusade. He never mentioned it again on the floor of Congress or in his letter to constituents. Bush became enthusiastic about a quite different policy. On July 30, 1968, he said, “I have become increasingly aware of a very sensible approach toward meeting quite a few of our most troublesome concerns. That approach is family planning and population control.”
Family planning was a natural haven for a liberal Republican recoiling from the pressures of racial politics. Population control was an outlet for all the good intentions that Bush had invested in his overtures to blacks and his carefully worked out initiatives on urban policy. It provided him with a vocabulary for talking about crime, children, pollution, and poverty—without the politically charged implications of race. Bush became so enthusiastic about family planning that his friend Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, gave him the nickname of “Rubbers.”38
In his second term in Congress, Bush devoted most of his energy to family planning policy. He cosponsored a bill to remove the prohibition against importing, transporting, and mailing contraceptives.39 He introduced a bill to establish a Select Joint Committee on Population and Family Planning.
“Birth control, often misunderstood, is an answer to our increasingly important hunger problem,” he told his fellow congressmen.40 He told his constituents, “I am convinced that we can never come to grips with the problems of poverty and hunger without a really enlightened family planning effort both in this country and abroad.” 41
Bush got himself named chairman of the House Republican Task Force on Earth Resources and Population Planning. Between June and October of 1969, Bush chaired twenty-two hearings of the task force. The topics ranged from ecology systems in Jamaica to satellite technology to new contraceptives. The participants in the hearings were equally wide ranging.
Bush’s task force heard from William Shockley, the physicist from Stanford University, who said that “our well-intentioned social welfare programs may be unwittingly producing a downbreeding of the quality of the United States population.”42 The record does not disclose what, if any, was George Bush’s reaction to Shockley’s testimony. Bush did, on other occasions, however, condemn “extremism” in the debate over birth control. He criticized both advocates of government-mandated population control measures and critics who claimed that birth control campaigns were a form of genocide against black people. Bush took to quoting the late Martin Luther King on the tragedy of unwanted children.
Bush’s enthusiasm for family planning prompted him to take a position on the issue of abortion for the first time. In December 1969, Representative Shirley Chisolm appeared before the Bush task force and advocated the liberalization of abortion laws. Bush commended her for a “bold and forthright presentation” which he said “deserves wide attention.” While he stressed that the task force was not endorsing her views,43 the task force’s final report, released in July 1970, proposed revising abortion laws “to eradicate the increasing number of unlicensed and unqualified practitioners who jeopardize the health and safety” of women seeking abortions—a de facto endorsement of abortion on demand.44 Bush would hold this position until the summer of 1980, when he was chosen to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate.
Ever since winning reelection to the House in 1968, Bush had thought about a rematch with Ralph Yarborough, and in December 1969 he formally decided to run. In contrast to 1964, he decided to present himself as a forward-looking pragmatist, not as an ideological conservative. He chose as his campaign manager a Republican operative named Marvin Collins who had just run the successful campaign for governor of a liberal Republican in Virginia named Linwood Holton.
“I do not believe you beat a liberal like Yarborough by being the ideological opposite of him,” Collins told Bush in an early memo. “Rather, I think we preempt the middle of the road and force him farther to the left in the process.” Bush hired Collins and announced his candidacy in early January 1970. At the same time, a young black political activist in the Texas Republican Party named Love Johnson had an idea for the Bush campaign. He wrote a memo saying, “From all over the state we are picking up dissatisfaction with Senator Ralph Yarborough from the Negro communities over his efforts to keep the Department of Labor from implementing the ‘Philadelphia Plan.'”
The Philadelphia Plan was devised in 1969 by the Labor Department as part of the Nixon administration’s effort to promote “black capitalism.” The plan gave the federal government authority to require companies and trade unions doing business with the government to set up “goals and timetables” for hiring and promoting minorities. The leaders of organized labor detested the Philadelphia Plan, and Yarborough fought it on their behalf. Love Johnson proposed that Bush hire at least one black staff member and campaign on the issue in black communities. Bush’s support for the Philadelphia Plan would drive a wedge into the black-labor coalition that usually supported Yarborough. “This issue can slowly but surely cut away Mr. Yarborough’s support from knowledgeable Negroes,” Johnson wrote.
When Yarborough lost in the Democratic primary to a tall, smooth, conservative insurance executive named Lloyd Bentsen, Bush pursued Johnson’s strategy anyway. He hired a young black businessman from Austin named Steve Ferguson to head “Black Texans for Bush.” A mailing to black voters signed by Ferguson stressed that Bush favored “Black involvement in the mainstream of the American economy, not welfare or charity.” Ferguson cited Bush’s opposition to busing—a position shared by as many as half of black voters—and his commitment to quality education for all. Ferguson said that Bush’s vote for the fair housing bill “confirms his sensitivity and dedication to fair play.”
Ferguson explained that according to the plan “contractors bidding on federally aided projects costing $400,000 or more must make a serious effort to increase the numbers representing minority groups among their new employees from about 5 percent to 25 percent in five years.”
Bush campaigned publicly for the racial quota scheme, contrasting it with Democratic welfare programs. “I’m not for you sending your money up to Washington and then them sending it back down in a discriminatory manner,” he told a black student at the University of Texas.45
As the campaign entered its final weeks, Bush described himself as the “Now Candidate,” positive, forward-looking, and engaged with young people. He spoke often about population control. He campaigned hard for the black vote. He sent out a letter reiterating his support for the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. When antiwar protesters at Southern Methodist University pelted him with marshmallows, he good-naturedly caught them and ate them while answering questions.46
The syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described Bush as “a glittering exponent of the ‘modern’ school of southern Republicanism…. Bush appeals to affluent suburbanites with economic conservatism while simultaneously wooing minority groups and labor.” 47
It was as if George Bush was trying to do what he said Lyndon Johnson had done in 1964—be all things to all people. But George Bush was not Lyndon Johnson. On election day 1970, Lloyd Bentsen, supported by more than 90 percent of black voters, swept to an easy victory.
Bush was crushed, according to people who campaigned for him, but recovered quickly. In late November 1970, he persuaded President Nixon to appoint him US ambassador to the United Nations. Over the next seven years, Bush also held jobs as chairman of the Republican National Committee in Washington, as chief of the US diplomatic mission in China, and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
When he returned to private life in 1977, he immediately began running for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. He continued to position himself as a moderate within the party. In 1978, while campaigning in Indiana for Dan Quayle, then a first-term Republican congressman, Bush opposed Republican proposals for cutting tax rates unless such reductions were accompanied by spending cuts. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and a woman’s right to choose abortion. During the Republican primaries in 1980, he told a TV reporter that he “regretted” having opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
7. From Goldwater to Atwater
Bush’s loss to Reagan during the 1980 Republican primaries was the last stand of the northern moderate wing of the Republican Party. When Bush was named as Reagan’s running mate, he publicly dropped his support for ERA and women’s right to choose, and implicitly dropped the politics of racial inclusion that he had practiced since 1966. Bush tied his fortunes to the conservative wing of the party, and to its racial politics.
“The rise of the presidential wing of the Republican party over the past generation has been driven by the overlapping issues of race and taxes,” Thomas and Mary Edsall argue in their recent book, Chain Reaction. Race, they note, was the “most important and the most powerful” factor in the Republican ascendancy. The polarization of the parties originated in the 1964 campaign in which Barry Goldwater and George Bush identified themselves with opposition to the Civil Rights Act. When Bush ran for president in 1988, he adopted the conservative strategy as his own, as when he made his “read my lips” no-new-taxes pledge at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Two months earlier, at a strategy meeting in Kennebunkport, he gave Lee Atwater and his other campaign managers the authority to use whatever racial strategies they chose, clearing the way for the Willie Horton TV commercial.
But within the Republican Party there has always been a significant tradition of resistance to strategies of racial polarization. In the early 1960s, northern Republicans like Prescott Bush proposed civil rights legislation. In the late 1960s some Republicans like Charles Goodell—and for a time George Bush—saw Republican political advantage in supporting federal programs aimed at protecting the civil rights of blacks and encouraging economic and political development of the black community.
In 1991 the conflict with the Republican Party over how to address racial issues erupted into a political civil war. The dominant tradition of Republican racial politics of the last twenty-five years, the tradition of the “Southern strategy” that runs from Goldwater to Atwater, is most strongly articulated by Bush’s challengers, Patrick Buchanan and David Duke. They make explicit what Republican strategists had broadly hinted but not quite said: that the aspirations and behavior of blacks are a threat to the well-being of the rest of the country.
The tradition of Republican racial moderation, which has hardly been visible since 1980, is now represented by Senator John Danforth of Missouri, who worked out the compromise on the 1991 Civil Rights Restoration Act, and by Jack Kemp, the secretary of housing, who takes the view that blacks should be given real power over policies now controlled by the federal bureaucracy. Their arguments resemble those of Prescott Bush and Charles Goodell: that policies successfully incorporating blacks into the American mainstream will help the country and the Republican Party.
George Bush isn’t merely caught in the middle of this conflict—he embodies it. The George Bush of 1964, 1988, and 1990 campaigned against federal civil rights legislation, evoked the specter of black violence against whites, and criticized racial quotas. Between 1966 and 1980, on the other hand, George Bush refused to appeal to the white backlash, supported federal civil rights legislation, and favored using federal power to promote black economic empowerment.
The question is: Which George Bush will we see in 1992? The Reverend Floyd Williams thinks that politics have changed the man who came to Antioch Baptist Church a quarter of a century ago looking to impress black people with his desire to do the right thing.
“I see a different George Bush now,” Williams says, emphasizing that he still admires Bush. “Sometimes leaders have people around them and they develop a different attitude, a different message. It’s not really them. It’s one of those things. They have to go with the flow.”
For George Bush, going with the flow now probably means running for reelection on the issues of “crime, quotas, and Kuwait.” If he chooses not to go with the flow in the last election of his political career, he is going to have to return to the views of Prescott Bush, and the principles which he said almost thirty years ago had inspired him to set out on a career of public service.
January 16, 1992
Houston Press, March 5, 1963, p. 16. ↩
Houston Chronicle, May 23, 1963, p. 9. ↩
The Republican cosponsors were Prescott Bush, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, and Kenneth Keating of New York. The Democratic sponsors were the liberals Philip Hart of Michigan and Paul Douglas of Illinois. ↩
The Dallas Morning News, September 12, 1963. ↩
San Antonio Express, September 12, 1963. ↩
As quoted in the Bush Bulletin, a biweekly newsletter of the Bush campaign, March 20, 1964. I found the Bulletin in materials made available to me by John Knaggs, author of the book Two Party Texas, and the librarians at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. I am grateful for their help. ↩
A copy of the study, by the consulting firm Louis, Bowles, and Grace of Dallas, is to be found in the Ralph Yarborough papers at the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas, Austin. ↩
Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, by Thomas Byrne Edsall with Mary D. Edsall (Norton, 1991), p. 49. ↩
The Dallas Morning News, April 9, 1963. ↩
The Dallas Morning News, April 11, 1964; Bush Bulletin, April 17, 1964. The original version of the civil rights bill provided for administrative, not judicial, enforcement of discrimination complaints. Critics of the bill saw this provision as a threat to the right to a jury trial. The bill was later amended to provide for jury trials in criminal contempt cases where administrative penalties exceeded $300 in fines or thirty days in jail. ↩
The Dallas Morning News, June 10, 1964. ↩
Bush Bulletin, September 18, 1964, p. 1. ↩
Austin American, September 25, 1964. ↩
The Dallas Morning News, October 28, 1964; Bush Bulletin, October 30, 1964. ↩
The Dallas Morning News, November 1, 1964. ↩
The National Review, December 1, 1964. ↩
As reported in the Forward Times, a weekly newspaper of black Houston, January 1, 1966. ↩
The New York Times, October 25, 1965. ↩
From a memo entitled “Opportunities for 1968,” prepared by the Research Division of the Republican Party of Texas, included in the Knaggs material. ↩
George H. Bush with Victor Gold, Looking Forward (Doubleday, 1987), p. 88 ↩
Biography, George Bush for US Senate 1970, in Knaggs material. ↩
The game took place on July 10, 1966. ↩
The Kraft polls are included in the Knaggs material. In Bush’s district 59 percent had a negative view of the NAACP; 46 percent had a negative view of the John Birch Society. ↩
The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 1966. ↩
Houston Press, November 3, 1966. ↩
Forward Times, October 29, 1966. ↩
Associated Press report in the Houston Chronicle, August 1, 1967, p. 1. ↩
Congressional Quarterly, January 14, 1989. ↩
Congressional Record, August 11, 1967, pp. 20,818–20,819, which includes the letter to Johnson. ↩
Houston Chronicle, date unknown. ↩
Congressional Record, March 12, 1967, p. 6,223. ↩
Congressional Record, April 9, 1968, p. 9,683. ↩
Bush letters, Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, Texas. ↩
From a column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak in The Houston Post, April 25, 1968. ↩
The Houston Post, April 11, 1968. ↩
Congressional Record, April 11, 1968, pp. 9,683 and 9,777; The New York Times, April 12, 1968, p. 18. ↩
Looking Forward, pp. 91–92. ↩
In Looking Forward, Bush said that Mills always treated him with respect, which freshmen congressmen don’t always receive (pp. 94–95). ↩
Congressional Record, January 27, 1969, p. 1,826. ↩
Congressional Record, February 24, 1969, pp. 4,207–4,210. ↩
From “Bush reports on the Action!” February 1969, p. 1. ↩
Congressional Record, August 5, 1969. ↩
Congressional Record, December 3, 1969. ↩
Congressional Record, July 8, 1970, p. 23,193. ↩
September 23, 1970. The Love Johnson and Steve Ferguson memos are in the Knaggs material. ↩
The Dallas Morning News, September 29, 1970, p. 18. ↩
The Washington Post, November 1, 1970. ↩