People leave after paying respects as former president George H.W. Bush lies in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

At 2:10 p.m. on Jan. 26, 1989, George H.W. Bush gave his first speech outside of the White House just days after being inaugurated as president.

The timing and the audience were noteworthy.

Few, if any, presidents have honored federal civil servants by addressing them so quickly as Bush, whose state funeral is Wednesday, did with members of the Senior Executive Service that afternoon in Constitution Hall.

But months later, he also used, in the worst sense of the word, federal agents in a bogus attempt to portray Lafayette Square across from the White House as a crack cocaine marketplace.

The employees he addressed didn’t have a scam like that in mind when he said “I’m coming to you as president and offering my hand in partnership. I’m asking you to join me as full members of our team. … I want to make sure that public service is valued and respected. … I’ve not known a finer group of people than those that I have worked with in government. You’re men and women of knowledge, ability and integrity.”

That language is a far cry from President Trump’s “drain the swamp” slurs. Unlike Trump, Bush fostered a sense of pride in federal workers. Among them was Tina Sung, then a young Department of Health and Human Services senior executive who stood in a cold line waiting to hear him.

“I remember the speech because he appreciated us,” said Sung, now a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service. Noting his “phenomenal experience” in government, she and her colleagues thought “he’s walked in our shoes, he knows what we do, and he appreciates us. … We all felt very energized. … It was a huge morale booster.”

Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, said the speech “was a clarion call to public service and demonstrated the president’s deep and abiding respect for the work of career civil servants who, in his words, are ‘the heart of our government.’ ”

Bush’s experience working with career civil servants enhanced his appreciation for them.

“In most of his appointed positions, he was managing civil servants, and he relied upon them,” said Jeremi Suri, a professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas. “When you’re director of the CIA, it’s civil servants who are the ones who are doing all the work.”

Unlike others, Bush “was a Republican who believed in government,” Suri said. “He was not a big-government person. But he was a believer in competent government and a believer in supporting those who had expertise in doing the basic management of government.” Bush was not “a proponent of bureaucracy,” Suri added, “but he respected the work that government bureaucrats did.”

Accompanying Bush during his speech to senior executives was Constance Newman, his Office of Personnel Management (OPM) director, whom he praised in his remarks. She remembers the respect and support he gave federal employees.

“Often, federal employees were part of negative optics in campaigns, people saying, you know, they’re not worth what they’re being paid, or they are the reason why government doesn’t work,” Newman said by phone. “He argued against all of that and praised federal employees because he considered himself a public servant.”

On the issue of pay, Bush implemented the Federal Salary Council. It has become the target of conservative criticism because it annually finds federal employee wages lag far behind those in the private sector — by 31 percent according to the November report.

“George H.W. Bush made closing the pay gap a priority, and the law he signed promised gradual comparability with the private sector, a compromise that balanced budget prudence with the principle that federal salaries should be roughly equivalent to those in private firms and state and local government that employed people doing the same jobs as federal employees,” said American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. “It was signature George H.W. Bush — conservative in the sense that the law defines pay comparability as 5 percent below the market and has a gradual phasing-in toward that modest goal.”

National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said Bush’s support for the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 “reflects his lifelong commitment to public service and his recognition of the need to properly compensate those individuals who work on behalf of the American people.”

Bush “knew the importance of keeping a skilled workforce,” said John Berry, an Obama administration OPM director who worked on federal employee issues with the Bush team as an aide to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). Bush, Berry added, saw federal locality pay bumps “as an expenditure worth doing.”

For whatever praise Bush is due when it comes to the federal workforce, it’s also true he used Drug Enforcement Administration agents to lure a low-level Southeast D.C. dealer, who didn’t even know where the White House was, to Lafayette Square to make a point about drug sales for a speech by the president in September 1989.

As The Washington Post reported two weeks after the drug speech: “ ‘This is crack cocaine,’ Bush solemnly announced, holding up a plastic bag filled with a white chunky substance in his Sept. 5 speech on drug policy. It was ‘seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House.’ ”

But in fact, the story continued, “To match the words crafted by the speechwriters, Drug Enforcement Administration agents lured a suspected District drug dealer to Lafayette Park four days before the speech so they could make what appears to have been the agency’s first undercover crack buy in a park better known for its location across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House than for illegal drug activity, according to officials familiar with the case.”

Before his election, Bush’s presidential drive was aided by an infamous “Willie Horton” television advertisement with racist implications. His campaign supported the ad but did not pay for it.

Organizations supporting federal employees' civil rights remember Bush with respect, though with qualification.

“Although President George H.W. Bush had a mixed record on civil rights, we recognize his actions to improve rights for federal employees,” said National Blacks in Government President Doris Sartor.

During his term, federal employees’ complaints of racial and sexual discrimination were slightly more than the previous four years, according to data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and significantly lower than the following four years.

Tanya Ward Jordan, president of the Coalition For Change, recalled his support of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and amendments to the Rehabilitation Act in 1992.

Yet, “like all recent administrations,” she said, under Bush, “much more could have been done to hold federal agencies accountable for discrimination, in particular race discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation in their ranks.”

Read more:

How the Willie Horton ad factors into George H.W. Bush’s legacy

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