George H.W. Bush’s death marks the end of several eras. It is certainly the end of the Greatest Generation’s leadership and perhaps the end of bipartisanship in the foreseeable future.
It may also be the end of well-prepared presidential candidates. Politics is more chaotic now, and we Americans have become too distracted, too distrusting and too disinterested to nurture politicians into potential statesman. Regrettably, in the instant internet age, we seem more willingly to pick shiny untested candidates rather than well-seasoned career politicians who worked their way up the political and governmental ladder. On the other hand, the field of potential presidents is much wider than it used to be when the “establishment” dominated politics.
I had my first brush with Bush when he spoke to an MU political science class during the 1988 primary season that I had the good fortunate to attend. I witnessed in person the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, and therefore Bush’s retirement from the presidency, on Jan. 20, 1993.
By chance, I was in Washington, D.C., when Bush died Nov. 30. I paid my respects while Bush lay in state in the U.S. Capitol. Bush was almost a constant newsmaker from 1970s until his death. Overall, I find him rather perplexing both personally and politically.
Because of a patrician background that combined wealth with a call to genuine public service, he seems to have more in common with Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy than he does Bill Clinton, Donald Trump or even his sons.
Part of it is the sense of patriotic service, but it also includes a willingness to compromise, a dignity, a cheerfulness, a public grace. In that light, it’s hard to understand how he selected an inexperienced Sen. Dan Quayle for his vice presidential running mate or an under-qualified Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.
While Bush always objected to the term “dynasty,” there is no other term for a family where a senator begets a president who begets another president, and another governor who begets a fledging political activist. Americans seem to recognize a Kennedy Dynasty but underappreciated a more effective Bush Dynasty.
By all accounts Bush was of outstanding character, up there with Abe Lincoln, a sincere and principled person. But somehow, he was often thought of being “too nice” to be president.
This being too nice may have dictated some compensating actions, such as the effective dog-whistle Willie Horton ad and caricaturing his opponent Michael Dukakis that helped him win the 1988 election. But it may have caused him to be overly tough with his utterance “read my lips, no new taxes” that contributed to his 1992 defeat.
Bush most likely would have been re-elected in 1992 had it not been for independent candidate Ross Perot attracting 19 percent of the vote, most of which would have gone to Bush. While the electoral college is deservedly criticized for giving us minority presidents, our voting system works against third-party candidates who can only be spoilers. It’s a pity that Bush’s defeat did not lead to election reform.
His strength was international relations where he led a coalition to restrain Iraq from invading Kuwait in 1990. While some criticize him for not going into Baghdad, it was exemplary that once our goal of turning back Iraqi forces was accomplished, American troops were brought home.
While Bush presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the majority of the credit belongs to the Reagan Administration, which he was part of.
Bush had at least three major domestic successes, all with a Democratic Congress, that may not have happened under any other Republican president.
First, he agreed to and signed the Clean Air Act of 1990, the last major environmental statute, largely because of his personal experience summering in Maine all of his life and seeing the effects of acid rain.
Second, Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, with which he had experience on a deregulatory task force in the Reagan administration.
Third, Bush compromised on a five-year budget plan that included “revenue enhancements” and that was widely viewed as violation of his “read my lips, no new taxes” proclamation. Ironically, this long-term budget agreement is considered to have contributed significantly to the economic expansion of the 1990s.
Additionally, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was negotiated under Brush’s watch but not ratified by the Senate until the Clinton administration. That’s quite a list of accomplishments for a president without his party in the majority.
Bush was the bridge from Watergate to the resurgence of the Republican Party in 1980 and from the low partisanship Reagan administration to the rise of the hyper-partisan Newt Gingrich-led Republican House that was still a factor in the first two years of Trump.
Unfortunately, the Bush campaign’s use of the Willie Horton ad in 1988, the nastiness of both of his presidential campaigns, and the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings cast a shadow on Bush’s legacy.
In the end, his hope for a “kinder, gentler nation” has not materialized. A president can only do so much.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.