President George H. W. Bush: Pro-Israel and a Man of Deeds More than Words
On the surface, the late President George H. W. Bush was an admirable, but not complicated man. Scion of an elite New England family, he was accepted at Yale before becoming a fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II. He then moved to Texas, marrying Barbara, his wife of 73 years. They produced a remarkable family that married into the Mexican-American community. As a GOP congressman from Houston, he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but supported the 1968 Fair Housing Law. Winning the presidency in 1988, his campaign manager Lee Atwater ran the racially-tinged Willie Horton television ad. Yet as president, Bush displayed an attitude towards racial minorities typical of the best of his class and party.
That is why my mentor, Professor Daniel Walker Howe, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a book on the pre-Civil War era (when Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party battled for supremacy with the Whig Party), quips that Bush was “the last great Whig President.” The Whigs had supporters in the slave-holding South, but their heart-and-soul were New England “conscience Whigs,” who were sympathetic to free African-Americans, the Cherokee tribe dispossessed by the Democrats from Georgia, and even women’s political rights. The Conscience Whigs were also the backbone of Abraham Lincoln’s new, anti-slavery Republican Party. The Bush family was part of this “Whig turned Republican” tradition.
As Ronald Reagan’s vice president and successor, George H. W. Bush made political peace with the religious “moral majority” of his time. Yet by 2016, he reportedly stayed home rather than vote for Donald Trump for president.
But what about George H.W. Bush and the Jews? Here, his record was complex. He was the son of Prescott S. Bush, later elected GOP senator from Connecticut. The Bush family patriarch was not sympathetic to the Nazis, but as a banker, he worked Brown Brothers Harriman, representative of Fritz Thyssen, who helped finance Hitler in the early 1930s. Prescott Bush was also director of the New York-based Union Banking Corporation that represented Thyssen’s US interests.
But as a presidential candidate in 1988, Bush won with a respectable third of the usually Democratic American Jewish vote. One reason was that he had played a role as Ronald Reagan’s vice president during Operations Moses and Joshua, which flew thousands of starving Ethiopian Jews to Israel; another airlift came in 1991. Even earlier, as Richard Nixon’s UN Ambassador, Bush supported oppressed Soviet Jewry and helped lay the groundwork for the repeal of the 1975 UN Resolution equating Zionism with racism.
As president, Bush provided Israel with the missile defenses that were a protective umbrella from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War (though they didn’t work very well). His administration also organized the contentious 1991 Madrid Conference that paved the way for peace negotiations under President Bill Clinton.
The rub here was Bush’s Secretary of State, James H. Baker, who was rumored to have remarked: “F*** the Jews. They didn’t vote for us anyway. ” This was in 1991, when the Bush administration initially opposed Congressional approval of $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel as long as the Jewish state continued to build settlements. President George H.W. Bush also made things worse by publicly describing himself as “a lonely guy” surrounded by thousands of pro-Israel lobbyists. He apologized, but Secretary of State Baker and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir also clashed bitterly over what happened at the Madrid Conference.
American Jewish voters did not forget. Only between 11 and 15 percent voted for Bush’s reelection in 1992. Yet in deeds, if not always words, President George H. W. Bush was a good friend of Israel. Without glossing over history, I believe in remembering it in the context of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition. There, the Prophets are viewed as interpreters of what the Lord is doing in history. Revelation through deeds is more definitive than revelation through words.
From my perspective, Bush should be should judged by what he did for Israel more than for what he or James Baker said — and by that record, and his record on minorities and civil rights, he was a pro-Jewish and pro-Israel president.
Dr. Harold Brackman’s most recent book, coauthored with Ephraim Isaac, is From Abraham to Obama: A History of Africans, African Americans, and Jews (2015).