Symbolic Politics Revisited:
The Bush Administration and the Civil
Rights Act of 1991
W. Gary Fowler, Donald W. Jackson, and James W. Riddlesperger, Jr.
President Bush vetoed the Kennedy-Hawkins Civil Rights Act of 1990 on October 22, 1990.1 He claimed that the act, “employs a maze of highly legalistic language to introduce the destructive force of quotas into our national employment system”2 The Senate failed to override Bush’s veto by one vote.3
On October 24, 1991, after twelve hours of negotiation between key senators and the White House, an agreement was reached on the language of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. John Sununu, President Bush’s chief of staff, declared, “It is a no-quota bill.”4 President Bush signed the 1991 act on November 21, 1991. Our purpose in this chapter is to examine what happened to induce the president’s key negotiators—at last—to advise him to sign the 1991 act. In doing so, we will examine whether the administration’s focus on “the quota issue” was real or was instead more rhetorical and symbolic. We will also examine whether the Bush administration may have missed the real issues on the passage of the Civil Rights Act and which parts of it may have lasting, tangible effects.
On November 14, 1991, C. Boyden Gray, then counsel to President Bush, wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that bore the headline, “Civil Rights: We Won, They Capitulated.” On November 18, William T. Coleman, chairman of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., former president of the National Urban League, replied with their own op-ed piece, entitled, “How the Civil Rights Bill Was Really Passed.” The conflicting perspectives of these accounts of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 perfectly frame the rhetorical and symbolic political purposes of those who were important actors in the negotiations; however, the effects of the negotiated settlement on future tangible applications of the 1991 act is quite another matter, as we shall see.