Reminiscenses on Civil Rights and George H.W. Bush

On 21 November 1991, the US Congress passed the most comprehensive civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Surprisingly, President George H.W. Bush did not veto the bill, even though he had vetoed a previous bill with similar provisions in 1990. Timing seems to have been a factor. Clarence Thomas had just gone through a very controversial confirmation process in the US Senate, driven primarily by the sexual harassment charges brought against him by Anita Hill. But it may also have been that enough moderate Republicans had shifted to support the 1991 bill, such that it had become “veto-proof” (a 67-vote majority protecting the over-ride authority of two-thirds plus one). As a participant in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, however, I do have a few words to say about how it came about, triggered by reflections upon the passing of George H.W. Bush.

The passing of former President Bush on 30 November 2018 has led to a host of tributes eulogizing this 41st President of the United States, with a particular emphasis on his outstanding foreign policy credentials and accomplishments. I am mindful, however, of the reminder that one should not overdo the praise, especially when it is done in a self-serving manner associating the eulogizer with the one who is being eulogized. I confess to having done that in my earlier tribute to Kofi Annan but did try to offer a more balanced view by engaging in a comparative reflection of the legacies of Kofi Annan and John McCain, both of whom passed away in August 2018. Both had flaws in their professional records, but they did show a degree of courage in their pro-migration stances, an issue on which I have been personally interested.

So here is another one. Not actually a eulogy, but neither was the comparative reflection on Kofi Annan and John McCain really a eulogy. But it is triggered by another round of eulogies for yet another prominent global figure, George H.W. Bush, who passed away on 30 November 2018. What a year this has been!

Bush and the Berlin Wall

In this latest round of eulogies, the idyllic memories of President Bush’s key role in stabilizing the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 are the most vivid. What better leader could there have been to manage this dramatic change than this Republican who had accumulated years of diplomatic and foreign policy experience? Well, maybe a President Dukakis would have done just as well. But that is water way over the dam! One can legitimately argue that President Bush did the right thing in meeting right away with President Gorbachev to soothe stress over the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and then meeting immediately thereafter with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to facilitate a speedy but deferential reunification of East and West Germany – based on popular choice of the German people themselves. One tends to forget how truly nervous both the French and British – and Russians – were about the implications of a resurgent Germany! So this is a big plus for No. 41.

Bush and Civil Rights

Oh well. The real reason I write this is not to dwell on his foreign policy accomplishments – or omissions. My focus here is on what he did on civil rights. Although President Bush might have been an effective foreign policy president on the big issues of the day, he was not such a reputable leader of domestic policy, at least regarding civil rights. This is not only because he foolishly said “Read my lips” to reinforce “no new taxes”, nor only because his Republican team had conducted one of the nastiest campaigns against his Democratic opponent in 1988. These are legitimate criticisms, too. But it is mostly because he had opted to be aligned with opponents of civil rights from very early in his political career that I am motivated to express my regrets. Regrets about the role he played in altering the domestic political scene to enable a sharp ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats on this very fundamental domestic issue of civil rights.

Even back in 1964, when he was running for a US Senate seat in Texas, he publicly opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And most significantly, during his Presidency, he opposed the legislation that eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1991. One could write at length about how he moved from his New England Republicanism to Texas and took advantage of aligning with the disaffected Southern Democrats. One could argue that he played a big role in how these disaffected Democrats eventually moved over to the Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s to form a solid swath of Republican states in the Deep South. Of course, he was not alone in bringing this about, but the key point is that his role in the realignment of Republicans and Democrats on civil rights was evident in the way that he handled this issue when it came time to deal with the legislation that was finally enacted in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

Personal Engagement with AT&T

I was personally involved in this legislation. I have often cited it as one of my own major accomplishments during the time that I worked for AT&T in Washington, DC. Having eased away from a political life in North Carolina, where I had worked for women’s rights and civil rights and had served in the NC Senate (as a reform Democrat) from 1975 to 1979, I had been attracted to the opportunities of working within a large American corporation that had actually implemented affirmative action under court order under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. My impression of the people from this company, many of whom had moved into a new corporate headquarters in my Senate district in Greensboro, North Carolina, was a very positive one, distinguishing them from most other business people in the district. They were constructively reaching out to embrace enlightened employment practices in this dramatically changing period for civil rights and women’s rights in the US. And they were part of a union company to boot!

When the offer came to join the company, I accepted with enthusiasm. And when I was promoted to represent the company as a lobbyist on labor and employee benefits issues in the federal political arena, I was comfortable representing a company that was committed to a progressive employment policy. Nonetheless, as part of the business community, AT&T was expected to align with a common business position, including on the social issues where the company might not be directly affected, as in civil rights. This eventually became problematic for the company when there was a major effort to correct a range of judicial interpretations of the 1964 Act with a bill put together in 1990 under the sponsorship of Senator Ted Kennedy in the Senate and Representative Gus Hawkins in the House.

 1990 Dilemma and Opportunity

There were roughly three main associations that guided business consensus on social policy in those days – the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. AT&T was a member of all three. So it was that AT&T quietly supported opposition to the Kennedy/Hawkins bill on civil rights in 1990. President Bush vetoed the bill, and the Senate failed to override the veto.

This was not a comfortable position for me, but there seemed to be no alternative. That is, until a letter came floating down from the CEO’s office, a letter from Julius Chambers of the NAACP, asking why AT&T was opposing legislation that was so inconsistent with its embrace of affirmative action. What a breakthrough this was! Bob Allen, the AT&T CEO thought that this was an important enough question that it required a thoughtful reply. And here I was, having known Julius Chambers from my North Carolina days, when I had supported his effort to be appointed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Of course, he didn’t get the appointment since it depended on clearance from the US Senators from North Carolina, Jesse Helms and Bob Morgan. Senator Morgan, a Democrat, even called me a laughing stock for having proposed it!)

Anyway, here was the opportunity. I proposed that Bob Allen should meet with Julius Chambers and other civil rights leaders to see if some accommodations could be made. Fortunately, Bob Allen agreed. Serendipitously, he had recently agreed to chair the committee at the Business Roundtable that dealt with social issues like this one. Backed up by the AT&T Senior Vice President for Human Resources, Hal Burlingame, he even agreed to convene some of his colleagues to explore whether a compromise could be worked out.

Groundbreaking Dialogue
Katherine holding the civil rights portfolio for AT&T CEO Bob Allen and Sr VP Hal Burlingame

It all started with a dinner in the top floor of the new AT&T headquarters building in mid-town Manhattan. The CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and American Express were there, along with Julius Chambers and a host of other leaders – not only from the civil rights community but also women’s rights and Mexican-American rights. Another key figure was Vernon Jordan, who along with Jesse Jackson, had met with us at the law offices of Akin Gump to hammer out the details of the proposal.

In early 1991, we worked out an arrangement where a number of BRT representatives met on a weekly basis with representatives of the various groups supporting the legislation. The BRT recruited Larry Lorber to help with the legal issues. Negotiating sessions with the technical experts were then supplemented with occasional leadership review meetings, and steady progress was made through the spring. As word filtered out, however, the rest of the business community became quite anxious. I regularly went to meetings at the NAM and Chamber where critics were abundant in their disapproval of the process.

Then three things happened. First, there was an impasse in the negotiations themselves, involving the matter of damages for cases of gender discrimination. Then, the White House stepped in. We already knew that President Bush’s chief legal counsel was not friendly. But this Legal Counsel then arranged for the President himself to call my AT&T CEO Bob Allen to convey his concern – and opposition to what we were doing. On top of that, a Democratic chair of a key House committee on AT&T’s telecommunications issues had called my boss to express his concern about our work from the Democratic side of things!

Enough, said Bob Allen. He was not interested in participating in this “three-ring circus” of the Washington political scene! Once word of his withdrawal reached the office of the House Majority Leader (a Democratic majority in those days), however, we were all called in to his office, where he made it clear that the committee chair had no business criticizing us and urged us to continue. But since President Bush had already objected directly to the CEO, the AT&T position did not budge. Too many rings in the circus.

A Happy Outcome for Civil Rights

The legislation did eventually pass, in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It was essentially what the BRT negotiating process had produced, even with a restriction on the damages issue regarding gender discrimination that had been the final impasse. By then, however, I had gone on maternity leave and was at home watching all of the hearings of Anita Hill testifying against Clarence Thomas. As noted previously, this seems to have been a factor in President Bush’s decision not to veto the bill that finally passed. The idea that he would support someone who was accused of sexual harassment and then veto a bill that would help enforce gender discrimination was too much of a political risk.

It was also the case that a number of moderate Republicans in the House and Senate did get involved in negotiating the final package and thereby helped to mobilize enough Republicans in the Senate to let the President know that the Senate could probably override his veto if he so chose to veto the bill. His Legal Counsel, a Southerner himself from a blueblood North Carolina family associated with this emerging Republican strength in the South, must have been disappointed by all of this, even if he did get Clarence Thomas onto the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the lawyer recruited by the BRT still lists his work on the Civil Rights Act of 1991 as one of his major accomplishments.

But Sad Implications for American Politics

Of course, all of this is ancient history. North Carolina has been overrun by the Republican wave that George H.W. Bush and his Legal Counsel were a part of back in the 1960s and 1970s. As President, he did do a few decent things domestically (e.g. the Americans with Disabilities Act), and he was truly a decent and gracious individual.  So now, we pay our respects to a gracious and loving individual who happened to be the US President from 1989 to 1993. In spite of his foreign policy record, he is part of the historic momentum on domestic politics that has brought us to where we are today. I do believe that his conscious choice of Texan alignments back in the 1960s did make him a flawed leader when it came to civil rights. His fellow Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, after all, was the US president who did ultimately enable the passage of that Civil Rights Act of 1964 on which the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was merely a building block. But then, LBJ had his flaws, too, as we well know. They just weren’t so directly related to the partisan realignments that we live with today.  In any case, may the two of them both rest in peace. Both of them are now duly enshrined in our history books.

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