At his inauguration as the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush said he sought “to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” Obituary writers over the past few days have looked back nostalgically at the first Bush era as a time of civility and bipartisanship. Jewish organizations have lavished praise on President Bush as a true friend of Israel and the Jewish community.
George Bush was born into a world of wealth and privilege. The future President was named for his grandfather, George Herbert Walker, a highly successful businessman and investment banker. His father, Prescott Bush, was a US Senator from Connecticut at a time when jobs in the finance industry and memberships in the elite country clubs were off limits to Jews. Young George Herbert Walker Bush was a fighter pilot in World War II, married Barbara Pierce, the daughter of a major magazine publisher, and graduated from Yale. He would leave the world of the New England elite and moved to Texas where he founded Zapata Petroleum.
The lure of politics was strong, and after succeeding in business he ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate, losing to Senator Ralph Yarborough in 1964. Two years later, he was elected to the House of Representatives and quickly established himself as a rising political star, winning a coveted spot on the House Ways and Means Committee. In 1970, at the urging of President Richard M. Nixon, he made another bid for the Senate, this time losing to former Representative Lloyd Bentsen. President Nixon rewarded Bush for his loyalty by appointing him as United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
At the UN, Ambassador Bush was supportive of Israel and made Soviet Jewry one of his priorities. The Jewish community honored him after he left the post to become Chairman of the Republican National Committee.
President Gerald Ford tapped Bush to become the US Liaison to China, where he paved the way for establishing full diplomatic relations between the United States and China. Bush would later be appointed Director of the CIA, where he helped to rebuild intelligence ties between the United States and Israel that had been frayed by the Jonathan Pollard case.
After President Ford’s defeat, Bush returned to Texas to plan his own Presidential run. His 1980 campaign got off to a strong start with a victory in the Iowa caucuses. But 1980 was to be the year of former California Governor Ronald Reagan, who selected Bush as his running mate. The Reagan–Bush ticket decisively defeated the Democratic ticket of President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter F. Mondale. President Reagan and Vice President Bush would win an even more impressive victory four years later, carrying 49 of the 50 states against Mondale and Representative Geraldine Ferraro of Queens.
In 1987, Vice President Bush helped orchestrate a Seder for Soviet Jewish dissidents at the US Embassy in Moscow, hosted by Secretary of State George Schultz. In December of that year, he spoke at the Rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington, DC.
The 1988 campaign started with a loss to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole in the Iowa caucuses. That proved to be a mere bump in the road. Vice President Bush won the New Hampshire primary with the critical help of Governor John Sununu, the only Governor who refused to sign a proclamation honoring the 90th anniversary of Zionism and calling for a repeal of the United Nations “Zionism is racism” resolution. Sununu would go on to serve as White House Chief of Staff and play a major role in the Bush administration. When he ran into trouble for his use of perks, he blamed the “Israel lobby” and other nefarious forces for his problems.
At the 1988 Republican convention, Vice President Bush was nominated on the first ballot and selected Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate. In his acceptance speech, Vice President Bush named Hadassah as one of the “thousand points of light,” volunteer organizations whose good work he would support as President.
The 1988 general election was bitterly fought. One Bush ad focused on Willie Horton, an African American convict who committed murder while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The ad was widely criticized, even by some Republicans, as appealing to racial prejudice. Lee Atwater, who ran the campaign, would later apologize for the Horton ad and some of his other tactics. Vice President Bush won 33 percent of the Jewish vote, a high figure for a Republican. Jewish support was based on his being the heir to President Reagan, one of the most pro-Israel presidents. There were also serious concerns over the prominent role of Jesse Jackson, who had made numerous anti-Israel statements, used anti-Semitic slurs and was aligned with Louis Farrakhan, in the Democratic Party. Vice President Bush and Senator Quayle would go on to win a decisive victory over the Democratic ticket of Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts and Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.
Many of the events in the Bush administration would have a profound impact on the Jewish community. President Bush followed President Reagan’s policy of engaging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce the threat of nuclear war and to promote democracy in Eastern Europe. These talks would lead to significant reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and the USSR. President Bush’s leadership would help to bring about the reunification of Germany and the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. These achievements would lead directly to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel and the United States, the greatest mass rescue of Jews since Y’tzias Mitzrayim.
Like his predecessors, President Bush sought to achieve peace in the Middle East. The personal chemistry between President Bush, a product of privilege, and Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir, a tough street fighter who had fought in the pre-state underground, was poor. When peace failed to materialize, the Bush administration made it clear where they laid the blame. At a hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State James Baker suggested that Prime Minister Shamir should show “a little good faith,” and said, “Everybody there should know that the number here is 202-456-1414 (the White House switchboard number). When you’re serious about peace call us.
When Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait in 1990, President Bush was quick to proclaim, “This will not stand.” He secured the support of the United Nations Security Council and many of the Arab nations, most notably Saudi Arabia. When Saddam Hussein refused to honor the UN ultimatum to withdraw from Kuwait, President Bush launched air strikes against Baghdad. Saddam announced that the “mother of all battles had begun” and that “criminal Tel Aviv” would be destroyed. American forces won a swift and complete victory, but President Bush decided against moving on to topple Saddam Hussein. He would later say that he thought the Iraqi people would take care of Saddam themselves and regretted that Saddam’s brutal rule would continue for another 12 years. The younger President Bush (“Bush 43” – George W. Bush) would go on to launch the Iraq War, which deposed Saddam but also resulted in empowering Iran, a far more dangerous enemy of the United States and of Israel.
During the war, Iraq launched several mostly ineffective Scud missile attacks against Israel. At the request of President Bush, Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir decided not to retaliate for those attacks. President Bush was concerned that Saddam would use any retaliation to claim that he was leading the struggle against Zionism, splitting the US from its Arab allies and uniting the Arab world behind him.
Different perspectives on Israel’s decision not to retaliate would lead to one of the most serious breaches in relations between the two countries. Prime Minister Shamir and supporters of Israel believed that Israel had done the United States a favor by not retaliating and that Israel’s cooperation should lead to diplomatic support from the United States.
But to President Bush, America’s economic and security interests were intertwined with the oil-producing Arab states of the Persian Gulf. That was the real motive behind driving Saddam out of Kuwait. The Bush administration now sought to reward its Arab allies and win support on the Arab street by delivering Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.
Israelis soon became resentful that the US had pushed their interests aside by demanding Israeli concessions. The Bush administration believed that Israelis were “ungrateful” to the United States for protecting them from Iraq.
Things went downhill from there. In September 1991, Israel asked the United States for additional loan guarantees for a bond issue to build housing for new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. President Bush threatened to veto Congressional legislation to provide the guarantees. While members of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) were meeting with members of Congress to push for the loan guarantees, President Bush told a national television audience that he was “one lonely guy” battling for the national interest against “a thousand lobbyists.” Many saw the comments as being anti-Semitic by raising the specter of powerful Jews undermining American interests. President Bush, with tears in his eyes, would later tell the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that he had never intended to offend anyone. But the damage had been done.
The feud between President Bush and Prime Minister Shamir would lead to the downfall of both. In June, Israelis seeking to improve relations with the United States voted Prime Minister Shamir out of office and elected Yitzchak Rabin as Prime Minister. In November, President Bush lost more than two thirds of his Jewish support from four years earlier, getting only 11 percent of the Jewish vote, as he was defeated in his re-election bid by the Democratic ticket of Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Senator Al Gore of Tennessee.
Ironically, it was while relations between Israel and the United States were at their worst, that President Bush took some of his most important steps in support of Israel and the concerns of Jews around the world. In a September 1991 speech at the United Nations, President Bush called for the repeal of the infamous UN General Assembly resolution that equated Zionism with racism. In what was seen as a demonstration of US political muscle, the “Zionism = Racism” resolution was repealed by a vote of 111-25.
In April of 1992, President Bush was successful in persuading President Hafez al-Assad to allow all Jews to leave Syria, so long as they did not go directly to Israel. Under the terms of this agreement, most Jews left Syria for the United States with many later moving to Israel.
As the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia (dictator 1977-91) was on the brink of being overthrown, during the spring of 1991, President Bush convinced Mengistu to allow the IDF to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel. As part of the agreement, Mengistu was promised a comfortable exile in Zimbabwe. In 36 hours, between May 24 and 25, 1991, more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to safety in Israel. As Vice President, Bush played a role in Operation Moses and Operation Joshua, earlier efforts to rescue Ethiopian Jews. It can fairly be said that George H.W. Bush did more than any other person to save Ethiopian Jewry.
James Baker was once quoted as using a four-letter word that should not be printed in this or any other newspaper to describe what the Bush administration should do to the Jews because “they won’t vote for us anyway.” Whether he said it or not, what happened was the exact opposite. President Bush, knowing full well that the overwhelming majority of Jews would vote against him and that the American role would have to be kept secret, worked to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
On Election Day 1992, what many American Jews remembered was “one lonely guy.” Thankfully, US-Israel relations have moved beyond that and the bond between our two countries is stronger than ever. We are taught that saving one Jewish life is equivalent to saving an entire world. President George H.W. Bush was one guy who saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. As he goes on his final journey, the Jewish community should remember him fondly.