It has been twelve years since the passing of a former president — it was Gerald Ford back then. This morning, we were greeted with the news of the passing of President Bush 41, the last president to serve in WWII. He lived to be a remarkable 94 years old.
He is being remembered as a simple and kind man, and although he only served one term — generally thought to mean an unsuccessful presidency — it was in sharp contrast to the president he followed — Ronald Reagan — but also in many ways an extension of Reagan’s policies.
Mostly, the civility with which Bush 41 ran the country is being noted in sharp contrast to the divisiveness of the Trump presidency. Humble and reflective of self-glory, Bush 41 was appalled at Trump’s self-centeredness.
Unlike Trump, Bush 41 understood what public service meant, from his time as a WWII fighter pilot all the way through his term as President.
As a young man he volunteered to fight in World War II; as an old man, he undertook important post-presidential disaster-relief efforts. These and other acts showed courage and class. At times—in working with Democrats on clean-air legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 1990 deal to tame the debilitating Reagan-era budget deficits—he acted humanely and even nobly.
But his career bore the marks of his struggle to square his patrimony of social liberalism and responsible statesmanship with the new demand from Republican voters for a more zealous and populistic conservatism. By launching his career not in New England but in his adopted state of Texas, where he had moved to make his fortune in oil, Bush would find himself continually pressed to sacrifice his Yankee principles of noblesse oblige and social moderation. Most famously, he did this in 1964, when running for Senate amid the great civil rights struggle. Regarded by many Texas conservatives as an Eastern carpetbagger, Bush denounced the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination in schools, employment and public accommodations. At other times, as with his congressional vote in 1968 for a fair-housing bill, he incurred his constituents’ wrath. Too often though, the former choice, not the latter, served as Bush’s template in making decisions.
The willingness to put aside conviction for political opportunity resurfaced in 1980 when Bush, after running a surprisingly strong second in the 1980 Republican presidential primaries to Ronald Reagan, recanted his well-known denunciation of supply-side economics as “voodoo economics” and his longstanding pro-choice politics in order to be chosen as Reagan’s running-mate. Throughout his career, Bush often said that while he might take the low road in campaigning, he hewed to his ideals while governing. But here he had done the opposite: trumpeting his true views while seeking the nomination, then abandoning them once in office. With Bush’s acquiescence to Reagan’s more-conservative politics, the last hope for a restoration of Rockefeller Republicanism perished. Never again would the party boast a major national leader who defended reproductive rights or questioned the merits of supply-side economics.
During his own bid for the presidency eight years later, Bush remained under parole from the right. To placate his party’s die-hards that year, he chose as vice president Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, who was pro-life, hawkish and opposed to new civil rights measures. Quayle’s unreadiness for the presidency soon became evident, and, much like John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running-mate two decades later, it was judged to be a short-sighted, irresponsible move.
An even more fateful bid to satisfy conservative skeptics that summer was Bush’s pledge at the GOP convention: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Fighting what Newsweek billed as the “wimp factor,” Bush felt pressured to demonstrate his Reagan-like machismo with what the pundits were calling a Clint Eastwood moment. The ironclad vow not to raise tax rates shored up support from the right, but in a time of skyrocketing deficits, it hamstrung the president after he took office. Eventually, in 1990, Democrats, who controlled the House and Senate, forced Bush to accept some new taxes as part of a massive budget compromise. The administration called them “revenue enhancements.” In his reelection campaign in 1992, Bush would renounce not the original pledge but his violation of it as his worst mistake.
Many of the encomiums published today dwell on the president’s grace and magnanimity,but his campaigns showed a less attractive side of his personality. Bush’s 1988 presidential bid has been widely deemed the ugliest in modern times. Under the tutelage of hardballers Roger Ailes, James Baker and Lee Atwater, Bush impugned the Americanism of his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, and pandered to prejudice in making hay of Dukakis’ honorable decision to accept a Massachusetts Supreme Court judgment that deemed mandatory pledge-of-allegiance recitals in public schools to be unconstitutional. “What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?” Bush taunted. Then came the “Willie Horton” ads that hyped the scare-story of an African-American criminal, released on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, who raped a woman and assaulted her husband. Never mind that Reagan, as governor of California, had signed a similar furlough bill.
Bush’s 1992 campaign against Bill Clinton was almost as scurrilous. The sitting president trashed his opponent for protesting the Vietnam War while at graduate school in England and made unwholesome insinuations about Clinton’s motives for visiting Moscow while backpacking. Clinton shot back in a debate: “When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people’s patriotism, he was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism.”
In between, Bush continued to put politics ahead of the national good in many of his appointments. Most notably, in 1991, when Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, announced his retirement, Bush could have honored his legacy by naming a respected African-American judge or legal scholar such as Amalya Kearse or Leon Higginbotham. But he selected a staunch conservative in Clarence Thomas—served up with the implausible assertion that he was the most qualified person for the job. Given that Bush had appointed David Souter to the Court, expecting him to name a more moderate black justice is hardly unreasonable.
In foreign policy, Bush has generally been given higher marks, and in some cases fairly so—particularly for his management of European relations at the start of the post-Cold War era. But he also made terrible mistakes, which were likewise rooted in cynicism. As Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait, Bush sent the Iraqi strongman clear signals, through the American ambassador, that the United States had no interest in intra-Arab disputes—the exact opposite position of the one he took very shortly thereafter, in which he drew a “line in the sand.” Bush commendably built international support for a military campaign against Saddam, but by leaving the dictator in power at the war’s end, he fobbed off the problem onto his successors. By 1998, in violation of the cease-fire agreement, Saddam was refusing to let international weapons inspectors carry out their job, making it impossible to know if he would resume a nuclear weapons program. One need not support George W. Bush’s rash decision to invade the country to concede that he was addressing a problem that his father had left—in the words of Dick Cheney, a top official in both men’s administrations—unfinished.
As distressing as giving Saddam a new lease on power was Bush’s treatment of the Shiite and Kurdish minorities who had suffered under his rule. Early in 1991, Bush had actively encouraged Shiites in Iraq’s south and Kurds in the north to rise up and depose Saddam, but after the successful expulsion of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, Bush concluded he didn’t want to see the country fractured. He declined to provide more than humanitarian aid, and tens of thousands of both groups were slaughtered or dispossessed. A similar embrace of realpolitik shaped his tepid response to the Chinese government’s massacre of student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Perhaps the worst act of Bush’s career came at the end of his presidency when he pardoned a bevy of Iran-Contra defendants—including Caspar Weinberger, Robert MacFarlane and Elliot Abrams—to protect himself from further investigation. As vice president, Bush had been present at key meetings about the arms-for-hostages deal that would become the Reagan administration’s greatest scandal, but he had never been fully candid about his support for the policy, insisting disingenuously that he had been “out of the loop.” Late in Bush’s presidency, Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh had learned of diaries that Bush had kept, which he hoped to introduce as evidence at Weinberger’s upcoming trial. Bush’s pardons thus shielded himself from any additional investigation. Walsh fumed that “the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.”
Needless to say, the above litany will inevitably come across to some as one-sided. In no way is it meant to gainsay Bush’s achievements in office or afterwards or diminish his attractive personal qualities. It’s to note that over many decades Bush often surrendered to instincts of political self-promotion and self-preservation, including acceding to the demands of an increasingly right-wing conservative movement whose basic tenets he didn’t necessarily share.
Despite knowing better, George Bush often slunk aside to create space in the Republican Party for right-wing ideologues and practitioners of the politics of personal destruction. It shouldn’t surprise us to see that others—made of far more malignant stuff than he—have now taken over that space.