“Because it was the right thing to do….”
That line twice played an important role in my life in the 1960s. Once involving my father, and the second involving my political hero, then Congressman George H.W. Bush of the 7th District in West Houston.
In 1963, my father, a successful retail baker who was very much a son of the south, was planning to add a modest health benefit program for his employees. Besides he and my mother, there were two women who waited on customers, and three bakers, all of whom were black.
I was there the day the insurance agent came to meet with my father and close the deal. The agent was a high school football official and I liked to talk with him about his experiences. My father knew that so he tipped me off every time he and Daniel planned to meet.
On this occasion, Daniel was asking routine questions, including how many employees would be on the health plan. My father, decorating a birthday cake, answered without hesitation: seven. The agent looked surprised and then said something even more surprising for a man whose compensation was tied to commission: “You are not going to provide insurance for your colored help are you?” My father, decorating away, replied with a simple “Yes.” Then the conversation turned a little nasty. The agent argued a little too strenuously against the move, using as his justification that none of his other clients provided coverage “for their colored employees.” All of this was taking place in a workspace away from the employees, but the three bakers could hear every word.
I will never forget this moment: My father looked up and said firmly, but quietly, “Daniel, if you do not want to sell me health insurance for all my employees, I guess that is your right. But I am going to get health insurance for all my people because that is my right, and because it is the right thing to do.”
Several years later, in a district meeting with very conservative constituents who were unhappy with Rep. Bush’s vote in support of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, my hero was being bitterly attacked for his support of the legislation, according to a young aide who was present. Houston at that time was a hot-bed for the radically conservative John Birch Society (they thought President Eisenhower was a communist) and Mr. Bush’s district had no shortage of Birchers. That he was one the few southern lawmakers to support the bill angered his constituents even more.
Despite the constant, vitriolic, and increasingly personal attacks, the aide said, Mr. Bush never lost his cool. Time and again, he explained that although the bill was not perfect, he voted for this historic legislation because it was the right thing to do.
My father was not perfect. Mr. Bush would never lay claim to that title either. But in a moment when it would have been politically and socially OK not to do the right thing, both men that I admire, did the right thing.
© 2012 John Gregory Self