Albert R. Hunt: George H.W. Bush was the nice guy who finished first
History takes awhile to render judgments, but the arc already is being kind to George Herbert Walker Bush. Particularly in foreign policy, the achievements of the 41st American president, nicknamed Bush 41 to distinguish him from his son, George W. Bush, No. 43, are widely recognized today.
What will preclude him from being considered one of the foremost U.S. presidents is his failure to win re-election. One-term presidents tend to suffer in rankings by reputable historians.
Bush, a Republican, is celebrated by Democrats and Republicans for his personal charm and integrity. He was an inclusive man and had little time for haters. This helps explain why there’s no mutual respect between the Bush family and President Donald Trump.
The Bushes, led by the late president’s son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president, will minimize any role Trump plays at his funeral, while adhering to a protocol that makes it impossible to exclude an ex-president.
With time, a greater appreciation has developed of accomplishments that seemed less apparent when he left the White House in 1993. He and his secretary of state, James Baker, managed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold war with skill.
He gets high marks for the first Persian Gulf War, fought in 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Massive American might was mobilized and a global coalition formed. Saddam Hussein was forced out of Kuwait and weakened. Then the U.S. largely left. It’s impossible not to draw the contrast to the debacle created by his son a dozen years later, when the U.S. toppled Hussein and then occupied Iraq.
His foreign policy team of Baker, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft was the best functioning in modern history. This was a culmination of decades of preparation by Bush to become a foreign policy president, starting when he was a naval pilot in World War II.
His domestic advisers, by contrast, left few footprints, and his perceived inattention to domestic issues dogged his failed 1992 re-election campaign. His defeat by Bill Clinton made him one of only two incumbents to be denied a second term since World War II and validated the famous dictum of Clinton campaign manager, James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Yet the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, supported and signed by Bush, was the most important civil-rights measure enacted in a quarter century.
Many economists argue that the prosperity of the Clinton era was facilitated when Bush agreed to a budget-deficit reduction package in 1990. It cut spending, raised taxes and infuriated Republican conservatives. It may also have cost him a second term, though in 2014 it won him a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
Only two years before, in his acceptance speech to the 1988 Republican National Convention, he had vowed that he would never raise taxes. “Read my lips: No new taxes,” he told cheering delegates. But six months later, on the night before his inauguration, he found himself regretting his signature pledge as the deficit outlook worsened.
His second thoughts illustrated two realities about Bush. He never believed in the supply-side, tax-cut-centric economic theory adopted by his party; he’d labeled it “voodoo economics” during the 1980 Republican presidential primaries. He could also separate governing, where his principles usually prevailed, from electoral politics, where he tolerated sleazy behavior such as racist attack ads against his 1988 Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, and, to placate conservatives, reversed his longstanding support for abortion.
Born a Connecticut blue blood, the son of U.S. Senator Prescott Bush, he moved to Texas, made money in the oil business, twice won races for the House of Representatives and twice lost bids for the Senate. He held top political and diplomatic posts under President Richard Nixon and then lost the 1980 Republican presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan. Reagan turned to Bush as his running mate when a deal collapsed that had been aimed at putting together a “dream ticket” with former President Gerald Ford.
Bush was a loyal vice president who didn’t leave much of a mark. His relationship with Reagan was more cordial than close.
Even by the standard of a more collegial political era he commanded unusual affection and respect across the aisle. One of his closest friends, a Yale classmate and Democratic Representative Thomas “Lud” Ashley, always called Bush by his childhood nickname, “Poppy.”
Most telling were his subsequent relationships with political adversaries. He engaged in a bitter 1984 vice-presidential debate with Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a national ticket. Later they became friends, and one of her last calls, before dying of cancer seven years ago, was with Bush; they expressed their love for each other.
After their presidencies, he developed such a good relationship with his rival Clinton that the family joked that the Democrat was the fifth Bush son.