President George H.W. Bush (increasingly known as "41" to distinguish him
from his son, George W., the 43rd president) arose to political prominence
for the usual wide variety of reasons, but prominent among them was
decency. His predecessor in the office, President Reagan, was impressed
enough by Bush's refusal to make Reagan's age an issue in the Republican
primaries that it became a factor in raising him to the vice-presidency,
once Reagan's first choice of former president Gerald Ford fell through.
Of course, the idea of Bush's fundamental decency, of his staunch
commitment to doing the most nearly right thing as he saw it, was never
going to sit well with the critics of a former CIA director in the decades
following Vietnam. But it served the entire nation well in at least one
instance, and Indian country gained as much from it as anyone.
After making a celebrated campaign promise as candidate Bush - "Read my
lips: no new taxes" - President Bush found himself up against a stark
political reality. Following the astronomical defense spending of the
Reagan years, either the nation must brave out a crushing budget deficit,
with all its economic and social costs, or taxes would have to be raised
after all. The alternative would have been tantamount to withdrawing large
swatches of the cherished social "safety net" for Americans, something
Reagan had resisted out of the fundamental decency Bush shared (Reagan
after all had firsthand memories of the Great Depression to guide him in
terms of what America could look like without a safety net).
Bush met with the Democratic leadership in Congress, and after a
high-profile, closed-door negotiation session at Andrews Air Force base
near Washington - he agreed to a tax hike after all. A multitude of
political considerations came into play, as always in such cases, but at
the end of the day Bush did what everyone says presidents ought to do: he
did what was good for the country, despite the political cost to himself.
By the end of his only term in office in 1992, the national economy was
recovering as investors, entrepreneurs and homeowners began to measure
their confidence not against mountains of endless debt, but against a
dwindling few foothills. A social safety net remained in place.
But Bush's political standing never would recover. A core set of voters -
Republicans who considered his no-new-taxes pledge a continuation of the
"Reagan revolution," and a host of swing voters of a similar persuasion -
felt betrayed and never came back to the fold. Bush's successor, President
Clinton, reaped the benefit of Bush's decision. Indeed, Clinton would
institute a range of social initiatives that moved tribes and Indian
entrepreneurs toward mainstream American prosperity as never before. But
without the Bush tax hike, the money for these initiatives - never mind the
political will, notoriously dodgy during hard times for the national budget
- simply wouldn't have been there.
At the same time, Bush's basic support for tribal self-determination
enabled Indian gaming to flourish under law Reagan had signed. By the
lights of later research, it would turn out that gaming money had rolled
through Indian communities to create an unprecedented surge in private
sector business activity during the Bush years, 1988 to 1992.
On other counts too, Bush proved readily approachable on Indian issues. He
seldom campaigned for them, and it should be remembered that he worked with
a Democrat-controlled Congress that could occasionally force his hand. But
he didn't get in the way of Indian policy and his instincts were decent
when it came to Native peoples. With Ben Nighthorse Campbell (always an
Indian and back then a Democrat) in the House of Representatives and Daniel
Inouye in the Senate both raising Native issues, supported by a strong cast
of other legislators and Indian professionals and non-Indian allies in the
nation's capitol, an impressive set of laws favorable to Native culture
went into effect with Bush's signature on them.
Foremost among them were the authorizing legislation of the National Museum
of the American Indian, and the Native American Graves Protection and
Repatriation Act. The museum will open its doors on Sept. 21 of this year,
a historic achievement whose story will be related then. NAGPRA protected
only those sites and remains within the federal purview, so that its
effectiveness against private sector developers remains limited; but no one
who experienced the spiritually charged first repatriations will doubt
NAGPRA's profound implications for restoring Native culture to a place in
On bills of less national reach, but still of great moment for Native
cultures, Bush again stood with Indians. He signed the law that turned
Custer Battlefield National Monument into Little Bighorn Battlefield
National Monument, in the process providing for an Indian Memorial on the
grounds - another major restoration of Native presence in American culture.
Also in that vein, he signed a congressional resolution that initiated
November as National American Indian Heritage Month on the federal calendar
- a comparatively minor measure, but still a significant corrective as it
plays out around Thanksgiving and highlights Native issues in a multitude
of federal offices.
Finally, from the Reagan years Bush inherited the Tribal Self-Government
Demonstration Project, a 1988 amendment to the Indian Self-Determination
and Education Assistance Act of 1975. The 1988 amendments authorized 10
tribes to consolidate federal BIA program grants into one funding source,
which in turn permitted the tribes to design their own management system
for the programs overall. The success of the demonstration would lead to
its adoption for all tribes that wish it in 1994, but in the interim Bush
signed a 1992 law that extended the demonstration to the Indian Health
Service, with full adoption following in 2000.