Mister Bush’s Neighborhood

Chatterbox is dumbfounded at the light media coverage of the news that George W. Bush sold his Dallas house in January 1995–after he was elected governor of Texas–with a covenant stipulating that it be occupied by “white persons only, not excluding bona fide servants of any race.” The story, which Matt Drudge broke two days ago and which the Associated Press and CNN confirmed yesterday, is nowhere to be found in today’s New York Times, Los Angeles Times, or Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post ran a brief item about it under the headline, “Bush Campaign Calls Whites-Only Covenant on House a Non-Issue,” and the New York Post ran something dismissive in its Page Six gossip column. Judging from Nexis, the only major U.S. newspapers to run stand-alone articles about the Bush covenant today were the Boston Globe and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The Bush campaign yesterday released a one-line statement from the candidate on the matter: “There is no deed restriction because it is null and void under Texas law and has been since 1984.” Actually, whatever law Texas passed in 1984 is beside the point, since, as Eve Gerber observes in Slate’s “Explainer” column, racial covenants have been effectively null and void under federal law since 1948, when the Supreme Court made it illegal for courts to enforce them, and 1968, when Congress made it illegal for private individuals to honor existing racial covenants or to write up new ones. But that hasn’t stopped politicians from catching hell when racial covenants on their houses have been unearthed during the past half-century. John F. Kennedy hit Richard Nixon with the issue during the 1960 presidential campaign. Later, it came out that JFK’s house had a racial covenant, too; he hadn’t known about it. Dianne Feinstein tagged Michael Huffington about a racial covenant on his house during her 1994 Senate race; Huffington then tagged her back, because she had a racial covenant on her house, too, which she hadn’t known about. (In both instances, Chatterbox is taking the aggressor at his/her word because he can’t imagine any candidate would be stupid enough to knowingly make an accusation so likely to boomerang.)

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker has been telling reporters that Bush, too, did not know of the covenant when he sold the house. It’s possible she’s telling the truth; if she is, this is a one-day story of little consequence. But some vaguely problematic additional facts have come out. According to CNN, Dawn Moore, an agent for the company that did the title search for the 1995 sale, says she sent Bush the deed restrictions with the closing papers. So, now we have to believe that Bush had the information but didn’t read it. OK, that’s still plausible; this was obviously a busy time for Bush, and nobody reads everything handed to them at a house closing. But this wasn’t Bush’s only transaction involving this house; he also bought it in 1988, at which time there would have been an earlier title search. Meanwhile, Bush spokeswoman Tucker has been saying that Bush’s former neighborhood, Preston Hollow, was a place where (unenforceable) racial covenants were the norm. The Washington Post quotes Tucker saying, “All the houses in that neighborhood have it.” Hmm. Does that mean nobody in Preston Hollow knew its houses had racial covenants? Or does that mean that Bush’s neighbors did know about the covenants but never got around to telling Bush about them during the seven years he lived there?

Bush’s second line of defense on the covenant issue may turn out to be the remarks of his real-estate broker, Steve Collins, who told AP that to delete the offensive wording Bush would have had to collect signatures from 75 percent of Preston Hollow’s residents and go through a costly and lengthy legal process. “Why would someone volunteer for that when they didn’t need to?” Collins said. Well, you might want to do it if you were a major political figure and were rich enough to own a piece of the Texas Rangers. “You don’t gain anything by doing it,” Collins told AP. “They don’t mean anything.” But if they didn’t mean anything, it wouldn’t be difficult to get your neighbors to sign a petition doing away with them. Or would it?

Perhaps Chatterbox is being a little unfair about the petition difficulty. Frank Michelman, an expert on restrictive covenants at Harvard Law School, told Chatterbox: “Think about your average Joe who is approached by somebody who says here’s a little instrument I would like your signature on.” Average Joe is going to ask himself whether this little instrument is going to affect his property value. In this case it clearly wouldn’t, since the racial covenant has no legal force. (Indeed, Chatterbox thinks, it ought to help, since some people wouldn’t want to buy a house knowing it had an unsavory racial covenant.) But still, Michelman argues, Average Joe would want to talk to his lawyer about it before signing anything, and that would cost him money. So, it’s not inconceivable that Average Joe would say, “The hell with it.”

But even if George W.’s personal culpability for the restrictive covenant on his house is zero, surely there’s a story in the ghostly persistence of racial covenants in Suburbia, U.S.A., one generation after the lantern jockeys’ faces were painted white. It’s hard to conclude that society’s reluctance to rid itself of these “meaningless” racial covenants has nothing whatever to do with the persistence of racial segregation, and even discrimination, in the housing market. Even in Washington, D.C., whose local politics are overwhelmingly liberal and whose mayors have been black for three decades, a 1998 study turned up evidence of housing discrimination by banks in 41 percent of the instances where it sent minority “testers” out to secure a mortgage. Granted, housing segregation is a knotty social problem for which there is no simple legal remedy. But it seems fair to demand that our political figures be alert to its manifestations when they turn up, literally, in their own backyard.