Critical reflections on President George H.W. Bush

The media has been full of statements and reminiscences of President Bush who died Friday. Many praise his public service and call him an honorable man of great character. They praise him for his admirable humanity.

Through the years it has been my habit—and indeed my soapbox—to caution friends in assessing whether a particular individual is a commendable person or not. I contend that they should not judge a person on how that person treats them—a friend. Rather, they should base their evaluation of the person by how they treat others, who are not friends.

Let’s apply that criteria to Mr. Bush and see how he treated others, especially African Americans. He vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which would have restored the law of employment discrimination that had been in force for nearly two decades before several Supreme Court decisions made it difficult for minorities and women to win discrimination suits. And shamefully, his campaign produced the notorious “Willie Horton” ad.

He has been said to have run the nastiest campaign in recent history. What that means is that he ran the most racist campaign for president in recent history (maybe until 2016).

Bush is remembered as yearning for a “kinder, gentler America.” While he may have wished for that kind of America, his campaign worked in the opposite direction, degrading political campaigns by worsening the coded racist appeals to white voters, the so-called “dog whistles.” He did this with the racist Willie Horton ad.

The ad was a 1988 presidential campaign television promotion created by Bush’s team. The purpose was to attack Bush’s opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, for being soft on crime.

Dukakis supported his state’s program that provided weekend passes for prisoners to leave for a day or more to work or to visit home. Notably, the Massachusetts policy had been introduced by a Republican governor, and most states had the same policy, including California under Governor Ronald Reagan.

The ad showed convicted African American murderer Willie Horton, who had escaped while on one of the weekend passes. He subsequently raped a white woman and stabbed her fiancé in a brutal home invasion.

The ad, showing a Black man made to look sinister, was intended to scare white people into voting for the “tough-on-crime” candidate George H.W. Bush. The ad insinuated that if Dukakis became president Black rapists would run amok in the country.

Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager, explained racial dog whistle politics back in 1981 when he was working for President Ronald Reagan. He was quoted as follows: You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than whites…“We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Thus Bush was not the first nor the last Republican candidate to used coded language and veiled racist appeals in campaign messages. Richard Nixon used them in his Southern Strategy and his law and order campaign theme. Of course, Donald Trump has moved beyond the dog whistle into other forms of undisguised bigotry.

How is it that Bush is seen as such a great human being when his presidential campaign was so racially outrageous? Perhaps our founding fathers provided us a clue. They wrote in the Declaration of Independence that, “All men are created equal,” when they did not mean the statement to cover black folks.

It seems that President Bush is being evaluated and praised with the implicit understanding that Blacks don’t count.