January 3, 2019
The passing of former President George H.W. Bush marked the loss of the patriarch of a political family intimately intertwined with an unprecedented era in American presidential history.
Three names have dominated national politics in the second half of the 20th century and now the 21st century. Each of those candidates had a unique impact on the criminal justice system as well.
Only four national elections since 1952 did not have Nixon, Bush or Clinton on the national ticket. One of those national elections had a primary that came down to the wire, narrowly preventing one of those names from once again being on the national ticket.
In 1952, a young California Senator named Richard M. Nixon joined Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Republican candidates on the national ticket. Nixon won re-election as vice-president in 1956. In 1960, Nixon won the GOP presidential nomination and lost the election to JFK. However, Nixon was not done.
He made a political comeback in 1968 beating Hubert H. Humphrey in the presidential election and winning a resounding re-election in 1972.
When Richard M. Nixon was making his second bid for president he introduced campaign operatives to the concept of crime as a divisive, hot-button issue. At the time, race relations were tenuous, at best, and Nixon knew it. Crime control became a surrogate for race control.
Nixon resigned from office, in disgrace, in 1974.
Soon after Nixon’s departure President Gerald R. Ford had to choose a VP. Although Nelson Rockefeller became vice-president, a new name emerged during the search - George H.W. Bush, a former House member who was then chairing the Republican National Committee.
In 1980, George H.W. Bush joined the GOP ticket with Ronald Reagan. Bush was again the vice-presidential nominee in 1984. Bush spent two terms as vice president before being elected president in 1988.
Bush’s opponent in 1988 was Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis. A political newcomer put Dukakis’ name in nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta - Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
Bush put race front and center during his campaign. The GOP ran a commercial depicting intimidating-looking African American men walking in and out a revolving prison door. The commercial assailed Dukakis for his support of a weekend furlough program that released convicted killer Willie Horton who committed a rape and robbery while on furlough.
The “newcomer,” Clinton, defeated Bush in 1992 and won re-election in 1996. Clinton was a novelty at the time, a Democrat who supported the death penalty. He even returned from the campaign trail to oversee an execution in his home state, further bolstering him as a “tough on crime” candidate.
In 2000, George W. Bush avenged his father’s loss, beating Clinton’s vice president Al Gore in one of the closest elections in American history. When it came to the death penalty, Bush was not going to be out done by the man who beat his father. Bush presided over 152 executions as governor of Texas, at the time, more than any other governor in U.S. history.
“W” was re-elected in 2004. In 2008, none of the three names that had dominated politics appeared on the national ticket, but Hillary Clinton, Bill’s first lady, fought Barack Obama for the nomination all the way to the national convention. Obama was ultimately elected president.
In 2012, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush - H.W.’s son and W’s brother - toyed with running for president but declined. He did run in 2016 and left early as his campaign failed to gain traction.
Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Democratic nomination only to be upset by GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Clinton came under attack during the campaign for her support of her husband’s tough on crime rhetoric. She was confronted with a quote about young “super-predators” and attacked for fueling the high incarceration rates of African American men and women.
And the beat goes on - Hillary Clinton’s name is often mentioned as a challenger to Trump in 2020.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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