Political pundits are assessing the legacy of former President George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday. Like many people in public life, Bush had good points and bad points. But compared to the current flock of Republican leaders, it’s easy to eulogize him as a statesman and celebrate his calm demeanor and genteel manners.
I remember a somewhat different Bush – one who struggled to make peace with the Religious Right during the 1988 election and as a result, ended up moving farther to the right in pursuit of reckless policies.
Remember, Bush began his political career as a Republican moderate. As a member of the House of Representatives in the late 1960s, he was known for his interest in international population control, and he championed access to birth control. When he ran for president in 1980, Bush portrayed himself as a more moderate alternative to Ronald Reagan.
After serving as Reagan’s vice president for eight years, Bush ran for president again in 1988. He received a shock during the Iowa caucuses when he came in third behind U.S. Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and TV preacher Pat Robertson.
In the wake of the defeat, Bush, an Episcopalian, decided to move to the right and play up religion in an effort to win over skeptical far-right evangelicals. He began giving more talks about his faith and sometimes even used the phrase “born again” to describe his faith. He played up his support for school prayer and private school voucher plans. He named Dan Quayle, a U.S. senator from Indiana who was popular with the Religious Right, as his running mate.
Bush also began pushing generic forms of “God talk.” A speech he gave in Pontiac, Mich., in 1987 is typical. Bush, who had served as a fighter pilot during World War II, recalled being shot down over Japanese territory. “I know what sustained me,” he said. “It was faith, and it was family. And I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”
During the 1988 race, I contacted Bush’s campaign in an attempt to clarify where he stood on several church-state issues. I received a reply via fax: a position paper with some quotes from Bush’s speeches and writing.
The paper quoted Bush as saying, “I believe in the separation of church and state, and although government should remain neutral towards particular religions, it need not remain neutral towards traditional values that Americans support.”
The same position paper reiterated Bush’s support for tuition tax credits (a kind of voucher plan), which he insisted would “provide greater choice in education.” On creationism, Bush tried (awkwardly, in my view) to thread the needle: “I’m not a scientist, but it seems to me that the Bible has an abundance of clues and evidence to help archeologists, astronomers and other scientists in their endless quest for knowledge. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Biblical account of creation and the scientific evidence of the origins of the universe will yet find common ground.”
Once in office, Bush tossed some bones to the Religious Right. He met regularly with conservative religious leaders and would occasionally talk about school prayer. He issued the usual religious proclamations. His administration tried, unsuccessfully, to allot millions for vouchers in the Education Department’s budget.
In the summer of 1992, Bush unveiled the “G.I. Bill for Children,” a $500 million outlay of taxpayer money to fund voucher schemes nationwide. At the time, Bush was struggling in the polls against Bill Clinton, and the move was seen as a sop to voters. As a political ploy, it was a serious miscalculation. After Clinton won the election in November, the voucher proposal quickly disappeared.
Bush’s biggest impact on church-state separation was through the Supreme Court. He named David Souter to the high court in 1990 to replace Justice William Brennan, but Souter turned out to be much more moderate than the Religious Right expected and was a strong supporter of church-state separation. The following year when another seat opened up after the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall, Bush and his advisers made sure to pick an arch-conservative. That’s how Clarence Thomas got on the court.
Thomas, now 70 years old, is the longest-serving justice among those currently on the court. His views on church-state separation are extreme, and he has insisted that since Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, he has no intention of retiring.
Thomas stands as Bush’s real legacy on church-state separation. For that reason alone, it can’t be called a good one.