George H.W. Bush, the Forty-First President, was blessed with multiple advantages. Heir of a patrician Connecticut family of wealth, power, and prestige, he was endowed with an attractive persona, high intelligence, an Ivy League education, and a first-class temperament.
In 1966 he won his first election. Following defeat in the 1964 U.S.Senate race, he made a successful bid for Representative from the Seventh Congressional District of Texas. He served two terms in the Ninetieth and Ninety-First Congresses (1967-1971). During his very first term he confronted a supreme test of conscience.
Along with a host of critics, Bush had his admirers. For them he was loyal to a fault, decent, modest, amiable, and very flexible—when flexibility was called for.—and deeply patriotic. When the crisis arose on public housing, Bush demonstrated another attribute: He proved capable of extraordinary political integrity.
The Open Housing Bill of 1968 contained expanded rights for minorities. Throughout Texas, the Bill met vehement opposition. In the Seventh District, Bush’s mail ran 500 to 2 against. Bill Archer, Bush’s congressional successor, labeled the Bill “emotionally explosive.”
Bush was no civil rights advocate. He opposed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, and he found troublesome provision of the Open Housing Bill. Nevertheless, he had begun viewing discrimination in housing from a different slant. His realignment began on the other side of the globe, in the relentless heat of the Mekong Delta.
Before the vote in the House, Bush toured combat zones in the Vietnam War. At first hand he observed young black soldiers engaged in the fighting. He concluded it was unfair for infantrymen to serve their country and its ideals in time of war and endure denial of equal rights to housing back in the states. When the roll was called, he voted “Aye.”
Outrage flared across the Seventh District. Congressman Bush was compelled to come home and face an irate constituency, in a called meeting at Houston’s Memorial High School. Scores of citizens assembled in an atmosphere charged with tension and emotion. When he rose to the lectern and tried to speak, he met a cascade of boos and catcalls that drowned his voice. He refused to yield, stood firm, paused, and finally the gathering calmed and grew silent.
He spoke deliberately and forthrightly. Here is a segment:
“…in Vietnam I chatted with Negro soldiers that were fighting and dying…for the ideals of this country…Somehow it seemed fundamental to me…the door will not be slammed because he is a Negro, or because he speaks with a Mexican accent…and so I voted for the Bill…because of a feeling down deep in my heart that this was the right thing to do…it was the right thing for America.”
The Congressman prevailed. The audience rose and cheered, and when he came up for re-election, voters gave him a second term by a wide majority.
In later years, even as President, he recalled the incident at Memorial High as one of the most satisfying of his career.