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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 188

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This is the grave of Robert Mosbacher.

Born in 1927 in Mount Vernon, New York, Mosbacher attended Washington and Lee University and then moved to Texas after graduation to make his fortune in oil thanks to a $500,000 starter grant from daddy. While there, he met another young man doing the same–George H.W. Bush. Like his new friend, his dad gave him plenty of advantages; although the grandchild of German Jewish immigrants, Mosbacher was also perhaps born with a silver foot in his mouth. His parents were super rich and they got their young son into the great amusement of the east coast elite–sailing. In fact, Mosbacher was outstanding at it, leading a team that won an under-15 yachting title in 1940. He remained a competitive sailor his whole life, nearly making the 1972 Olympics and losing to the gold medal winner that year in the trials. Mosbacher’s family was so rich that their friend George Gershwin used to hang out at their 43-acre estate near White Plains, where he wrote “Summertime.”

Like Mosbacher’s rich Texas and east coast friends, he was a good Republican. Sure, he was Jewish in a world of old-school elite mild anti-Semitism that Bush, James Baker, and others lived in. But Mosbacher converted to Presbyterianism when he married the first of his four wives, each with a greater age difference than the last. This no doubt pleased his wife, but also probably advanced his political ambitions. He became a leading Republican money man. He managed the finances in Bush’s 1970 Senate run that he lost to Lloyd Bentsen. His first major foray into national politics was serving as Gerald Ford’s finance chairman in 1976. He remained a Bush stalwart and ran the finances on both his 1980 and 1988 campaigns. Bush gave Mosbacher credit for convincing him to drop out of the 1980 race before it undermined his chances to become Reagan’s VP. During the Reagan administration, Mosbacher’s major role was pressuring officials to seek advice from business in solving problems, as well as in Republican fundraising. So when Bush looked for a Secretary of Commerce in 1989, he turned to his old friend. Secretary of Commerce has long been a place to put a friend or, in more recent years, to fill a diversity goal; as perhaps the least important of all Cabinet positions, it serves a minor function in governance but a relatively major one in internal party politics. And it’s the perfect place for your money man.

At Commerce, Mosbacher had one major goal–getting the North American Free Trade Agreement worked out and passed. A huge proponent of free trade and expanding American industrial ties to Mexico, Mosbacher also hoped that Bush could use the issue in his re-election campaign to draw Mexican-Americans from the Democratic Party. The arrival of Ross Perot into the campaign obviously threw a grenade into this idea, but this is how strongly Mosbacher believed in NAFTA. In fact, Mosbacher perhaps holds more responsibility for NAFTA than any single American political figure. Overall, he held more power in the Bush administration than most Commerce secretaries, thanks to his many political connections and personal friendship with the president, although he also somewhat abused that by being more aggressive than even the usual Washington standards of trying to get ambassadorships for other leading Republican fundraisers.

In later life, he was a leading player in John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, while also serving on major leading business boards, especially in the oil industry, where he made so much money over the decades.

Mosbacher died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.

Also, he cared.

Robert Mosbacher is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

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