COLUMBUS — Former President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at 94, was a war hero, Republican national chairman, CIA director, congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, head of the U.S. Liaison Office to China and vice president in a life defined by public service.
Akron native Thaddeus Garrett Jr. gave Bush, a Republican, the opportunity to add a line to that impressive resume and Bush took it:
Sunday morning preacher in a predominantly African-American church.
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an every-flowing stream,” then President Bush said on Jan. 28, 1990, at the John Wesley Temple AME Zion Church in Washington, D.C., quoting the Old Testament prophet Amos.
“No more racism … ” the president continued. “ … Leave the tired baggage of bigotry behind.”
If Bush, a white, Yale-educated patrician whose wardrobe defined preppy, felt out of place, he didn’t show it. It marked the first time Bush had worshiped at a black church since becoming president in 1989, Garrett said.
Garrett, who died at 51 in 1999, was the real guest preacher that Sunday and Bush’s well-received “sermon” lasted less than three minutes. Garrett was associate pastor of the Wesley Temple AME Zion Church in Akron and also operated an international trade and government relations consulting business in Washington.
He had been a domestic policy adviser to Bush when Bush was vice president. Garrett was a guest preacher two or three times a year in Washington and sometimes invited Bush and his wife Barbara to the services.
When Bush was vice president from 1981 to 1988, the couple each year went to a service to hear him preach, Garrett said.
It is hard to imagine the current race-baiting Republican president receiving such invitations.
In fact, in 1990, Bush’s message struck some as hypocritical.
His successful 1988 campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis had been fierce.
It included a TV ad linking Dukakis to Willie Horton, a black convict in Massachusetts who had been serving a prison sentence for murder when he was permitted weekend furloughs under a state program while Dukakis was governor. Horton escaped and raped a white woman at knifepoint.
The ad was an extreme example of part of Bush’s complex makeup. He was civilized and open-minded, willing to reach across the aisle in Washington to achieve legislative goals, even to raise taxes in a move that helped cause his defeat in 1992.
But he was also fiercely competitive, sometimes to a fault as the Horton ad showed.
His visit in 1990 to the Washington church with his wife Barbara came at a tense time in the nation, especially in predominantly black Washington. Garrett said that Bush told him that he wanted to make a statement against a resurgence of race-related attacks and bombings.
In addition, Washington was on edge with the arrest earlier that month of Mayor Marion Barry, who was black, on a misdemeanor charge of cocaine possession. Barry was arrested in a sting operation with crack cocaine supplied by the FBI.
Critics, including some in the church, complained that Barry’s arrest fit a pattern of harassment of black elected officials. Four blocks north of the church, Barry supporters had held a prayer vigil at a city building.
Garrett let the congregation know that the Bushes had been there for him. During the previous decade, they had been like his “aunt and uncle,” Garrett said.
The congregation really didn’t need the reassurance.
The 1851-vintage red brick church with its stained-glass windows and cathedral ceiling had thundered with applause after the president spoke and shook hands with vocal soloist Gwendolyn Boyd.
“I told him I won’t wash my hand,” Boyd said after the service.
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He is the co-author, with John C. Green, of "Mr. Chairman: The Life and Times of Ray C. Bliss." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.