What we are reading: When the Subject Is Civil Rights, There Are Two George Bushes

In the era of Donald Trump, a convenient narrative has emerged that the Bush family was more or less color-blind and fighters for racial equality. While that might be true of the generation that included President George W. Bush and Governor Jeb Bush (it should be noted in the 1990’s when the GOP was being swept by anti-immigrant sentiment, the Bush brothers publicly rejected it which was moderately courageous) this wasn’t necessarily the case with President Bush, Geoege H.W. Bush. It’s been met with amazement or worse debate when I have through the years consistently pointed out that the elder Bush was against civil rights openly in his 1964 campaign for the US Senate. Bush was the GOP nominee against Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough one of the most liberal members of the Senate and a strong civil rights supporter (Yarborough was the only Southern Democrat in the Senate to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and did so unflinchingly despite the potential political consequences at home). As a self-proclaimed admirer of Yarborough, I know the history of this race and the 1970 campaign well (Yarborough was defeated in the primary by conservative Lloyd Bensten who then beat Bush in the General) and Bush in both years resorted to race baiting and opposition to civil rights.

But in-between those two races as a US House member from suburban Houston, Bush actually cultivated African-American support and voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which ensured fair housing practices and was NOT popular in Texas. This was in marked contrast to Ronald Reagan, the then-governor of California who railed against the legislation and almost rode white anger to the 1968 GOP nomination even though he was never a declared candidate for President. In 1970, when Yarborough was knocked off in the Democratic Primary by the conservative-pro business Bentsen, Bush found himself in a awkward territory and was unsuccessful in linking the classic Texas Bourbon Democrat Bentsen to anti-war protesters and civil rights activists which had been the GOP’s plan with Yarborough.

Bush’s history after that was complicated. The Willie Horton ad of 1988 reminds us how cynical his team could be, but other actions in the 1970’s and 1980’s tended to differentiate Bush from the Reagan school of race-baiting populism. Nonetheless, here is an interesting New York Times article from 1991 on the subject. 

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