Bush: As compassionate as he has to be

Just how far will George W. reach out to minorities? As far as he can without alienating any bigots.

Published October 6, 1999 7:02PM (EDT)

Texas Gov. George W. Bush came to this ethnic enclave to offer himself as a new kind of Republican. In a two-day swing through the multicultural bouillabaisse that is New York, the self-described "compassionate conservative" advertised himself as a Republican presidential candidate who is not only unafraid to meet with black people, unlike many members of the GOP, but one who actually cares about the African-American community.

But just how down with the brothers is Bush? At a press conference following the Wednesday tour through the Queens Job Center -- where he was flanked by the otherwise feuding Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- Bush refused to risk even a smidgen of political capital by condemning bigotry except in its most generic form.

Asked about the prejudiced comments of GOP rival Pat Buchanan, Bush again refused to condemn his potential Reform Party rival. Bush competitors like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., -- as well as the methodical Elizabeth Dole and Steve Forbes -- have spoken harshly about Buchanan's assertion that the U.S. should have minded its own business during World War II.

Asked about the recent fine levied against his Louisiana campaign chair, Gov. Mike Foster, who illegally hid the fact that he twice purchased mailing lists from former Klansman David Duke, Bush avoided commenting altogether.

It all left a distinct impression that Bush's efforts to reach out to minority communities fade away when he has to risk losing even one bigot's vote in the process.

As McCain said after Bush continued to kowtow to Buchanan, "by continuing to appease Buchanan, several of our candidates appear to have put politics ahead of our party's principles ... Like Gov. Bush, I want to see a united Republican Party. But no political campaign is worth sacrificing our principles. Anyone who really believes in the politics of inclusion and its importance to our party needs to join me and make it clear to our fellow Americans exactly what our party -- and our country -- stands for."

Bush's calculated timidity is all the more striking in light of his comments Wednesday that he can not only win New York's Republican primary on March 7, but that he also has "a chance to win New York in the year 2000," should he become the party's nominee. Pataki carried the state twice, Bush said, and Giuliani will win next year's Senate race. "I leave this great state upbeat about my chances, I really do," Bush said.

Bush hoped that his incursion into otherwise Democratic territory -- a charter school in Harlem Tuesday morning, a welfare-to-work center in Queens Wednesday -- would improve this chance by allowing him to show tangible examples of how conservatism, in his words, "has become a creed of hope" and "a creed of social progress." But the depth of Bush's commitment to social progress is up for debate.

No surprise there, says Bill Minutaglio of the Dallas Morning News' Austin bureau, who wrote a generally favorable biography of Bush called "First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty," that will hit bookstores later this month. Minutaglio says that Bush might talk a good game when it comes to minorities, but he is never willing to back it up if it entails any risk.

"One of the most unfortunate tragedies to occur in Texas in the past few years occurred when James Byrd was dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas," Minutaglio says. "And some people in Texas certainly wished that Gov. Bush had been more proactive in responding to the tragedy. I would hear people complain all the time that it would have been a perfect opportunity for Bush to come forward in a broader and more aggressive way by taking a stance on something so clearly racial and take a strong stance against the entrenched bigotry you often see here in Texas."

Bush "condemned the event, of course," Minutaglio says. "And he asked for a speedy prosecution and all that. But when I was working on my book, I spoke with a number of African-Americans who wished that he had been more proactive and involved in speaking out against what was a particularly heinous crime."

The Byrd tragedy also heightened the call by many Texas Democrats for stricter penalties for so-called hate crimes. Bush orchestrated the demise of a hate crime bill in the Texas legislature last session. And though two defendants in the Byrd case eventually received the death penalty, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley has said he will make an issue out of "the symbolic significance" of Bush's unwillingness to support the legislation.

With Bush relatively quiet in the face of an evil as unambiguous as the Byrd murder, it is not surprising that Bush has also been weak-kneed about the more muddled and nuanced pathologies of his Republican buddies Buchanan and Foster. When asked about Buchanan's anti-Semitism by New York City's fabled newsman Gabe Pressman, Bush only said that Buchanan -- who was once condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as having "a 30-year record of intolerance unmatched by any other mainstream political figure" -- "ought to lay out his views, I think we ought to have an honest debate, and I look forward to whippin' him!"

When Pressman pressed, Bush said only, "I look forward to him stating his beliefs. He ought to get out there in Iowa and New Hampshire South Carolina like the rest of us, he ought to lay out his point of view, and I'm confident that the Republican party will reject it."

"Gov. Bush," another reporter began, "Gov. Pataki and Mayor Giuliani have both been willing to decry racism and anti-Semitism and that sort of thing; you haven't been ..."

"I decry racism, and I decry anti-Semitism," Bush interrupted.

"But not when there's any sort of political risk ..."

"I decry racism," Bush said. "I hereby decry anti-Semitism."

"But your Louisiana campaign chair, Gov. Foster, purchased mailing lists from David Duke and when you were asked about that you said that you didn't even know anything about it."

"I didn't know anything about it," Bush said.

"Well, now you do," the reporter said.

But with a smug smirk on his lips, and a twinkle in his eye, Bush turned his head and moved on to the next question.

Minutaglio says that when he's asked by national reporters about the majesty and boldness of Bush's "compassionate conservatism," he scratches his head. "By and large his pattern here in Texas has not been one of taking outrageous risks," he says. "Bush has been a very efficient delegator, and a guy who's made the trains run on time, but as far as his being an arching chance-taker, it's not evident in his policies."

But it is evident in his rhetoric. The Bush campaign constantly touts its candidate's "I'm a uniter, not a divider" mantra. And to mushy middle-of-the-road, middle-class ticket-splitters, Bush does handily benefit from the contrast between him and his racially retarded Republican presidential predecessors. That he speaks Spanish, not to mention that he shows up to speak with African-American church-goers, as he did in Buffalo on Monday, is indubitably appealing to the suburban voters where this year's presidential race will be fought. Bush knows this, of course, and it's one of the reasons why he touts "compassionate conservatism."

"'Compassionate conservatism' or 'prosperity with a purpose' might personally be new for him," Minutaglio says. "But when you really lay it out on the table, his policies are very similar [to] his father's 'thousand points of light.'"

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Republican Party