Principle over Politics? The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview

Discussant: Alvin Bessent

I feel like something of an interloper on this distinguished panel because I was not in Washington during the Bush years. I was here on Long Island and in New York City, working as a newspaper writer covering the usual things—courts, legal affairs, cops, local government, and the like—and so the comments I would offer are going to be a little scattershot, touching on a number of the subjects. If a case could ever be made for a bifurcated presidency—that is, one chief executive for foreign affairs and another for domestic policy—then I think George Bush would be exhibit A for the people trying to make that case.

I didn’t always agree with the things President Bush tried to accomplish in the foreign arena; I didn’t always disagree with him either. But one thing there’s no denying: George Bush was a force to be reckoned with in that environment. He demonstrated repeatedly that he knew about how to use force and how to get things done, whether in Panama or in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

While internationally he was decisive, dominant, and, I think, effective, on the domestic side it was a different picture. It was sort of like Superman, who would fly around with his cape and his tights internationally, but then come back and become milquetoast Clark Kent domestically. The papers discussed here touched on three topics: civil rights, education, and drugs, so I’ll try to touch just very, very briefly on each of those.

George Bush’s contribution in the civil rights arena was to raise this issue of quotas, an issue that is divisive and tends to bedevil us even today. I don’t know exactly how you deal with a historic underrepresentation of peoples of color in almost every endeavor of significance in this country without counting numbers. I think you can count numbers without establishing quotas but, as was laid out in the paper on this subject, George Bush and people on the other side of this issue wrangled for at least a year, between October 1990 and ’91, over the issue of quotas and over legalisms about disparate impact of policies on minorities in this arena and how they should define business necessity. These were important topics because I think the administration was really groping for something that was fair to everyone. But when George Bush in 1991 decided that he would sign a civil rights bill after rejecting one a year earlier, I don’t think it was because these issues that he had wrangled with over the year had changed significantly. If the bill in 1990 was a quota bill, then certainly the bill in 1991 was, too. And I think the decision to sign it had much more to do—as the gentlemen from Texas suggested—with symbolism rather than reality.

What had happened, I think, is that, in the intervening time, quotas had gone from being an interesting academic exercise and a useful wedge issue to an issue that was beginning to be a problem for the administration. Other civil rights issues had come to the fore. There was the Clarence Thomas nomination, and the wran

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