“What does the party do next about David Duke?” a reporter asked President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
It was just a month into Bush Sr.’s presidency, and he was facing a question about whether he regretted taking a stand against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s bid for state office in Louisiana.
Faced with a question about whether he should have kept his opinion to himself, Bush stood firm in his decision, saying, “Maybe there was some feeling in Metairie, Louisiana, that the president of the United States involving himself in a state legislative election was improper or overkill. I’ve read that, and I can’t deny that. But what I can affirm is: I did what I did because of principle.”
In November 1991, Bush was again given the opportunity to distance himself from white supremacists like Duke. This time, he did so even more forcefully.
After saying he would “strongly” urge voters not to vote for Duke, who was then the Republican nominee for Louisiana governor, Bush offered a longer explanation:
“When someone asserts that the Holocaust never took place, then I don’t believe that person ever deserves one iota of public trust. And when someone has so recently endorsed nazism, it is inconceivable that such a person can legitimately aspire to leadership — in a leadership role in a free society. And when someone has a long record, an ugly record, of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign.
So, I believe that David Duke is an insincere charlatan. I believe he is attempting to hoodwink the voters of Louisiana, and I believe that he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for.”
Democrat Edwin Edwards defeated Duke a week later, coming away with 61% of the vote to Duke’s 39%.
There are times when doing the right thing means bucking your own party and risking damage to your own political future. Bush knew the risks and seemed at peace with that moral decision.
Less than a year after helping elect Edwards, a southern Democratic governor, Bush was defeated by another: Bill Clinton. Bush’s 1991 denunciation of Duke came as his approval rating — which was as high as 89% in March 1991 — had begun to falter. Maybe the de facto endorsement of Duke’s Democratic opponent hurt Bush’s 1992 prospects — he did, after all, lose Louisiana in his reelection bid — but maybe some things are more important than politics.
Whether it was denouncing racists like Duke, publicly resigning his National Rifle Association membership, giving his son a lesson in ethics, or simply finding grace in defeat, George H.W. Bush showed that sometimes politicians can rise above politics. While there are many things one may or may not like about his policies and actions in office, he let his humanity shine through in difficult moments.
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