Term in office: 41st president, 1989-1993
Political Party: Republican
Home State: Texas
The bottom two spots on our top ten are filled by Cleveland and by Bush Sr., two figures whom I do not always agree with, but whose competence, public spirit, and honesty stand out. Each reminds us to check our criteria of success at the door; there are a number of ways that one can be a successful president, and not all of them have to follow the model of Franklin Roosevelt- having an ambitious agenda and then carrying it out. George Bush the Elder, or Bush 41, or Poppy Bush, or whatever way you choose to distinguish him from his son, handled the presidency with astounding competence, but unspectacular energy, during some perilous times. He had to navigate through the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. He had to figure out a way to convince a country tired of Middle East incursions and still reeling from the Vietnam syndrome to repel Iraq from Kuwait. And he had to cut down on Reagan-era excesses without losing the support of the machinery of conservative activism that got him elected in the first place.
For Bush, background was destiny. The man was a WASP through and through. WASPs from elite New England families are a dying breed these days; when Lincoln Chafee retires in January 2015, Sheldon Whitehouse will be the only one left holding a major office in New England. It is easy to forget that within living memory, the plum offices in New England were held by Cabot Lodges, Greggs, Pells, Peabodys, and Saltonstalls. Oh, and a family from that set down roots in Connecticut, the Bushes. So, from the beginning, elite boarding schools, ivy league colleges with secret societies, and some form of military service set the parameters of the world in which Bush was raised. Were they overpriviledged? Sure. It’s hard not to think about young George Bush vacationing with his family in Kennebunkport enjoying fine food and recreation while a teenage Ed Muskie almost certainly bussed their tables and cleaned their dishes, decades before the two men formally met.
But George Bush made good on these advantages. He made his way through life via family connections, and proving that he had earned his status by cultivating a reputation for competence and loyalty. Consider the difference this made when compared to the careers of Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, who for all their differences, succeeded on charisma, pluck, and a certain level of public-relations genius. Accordingly, there were some political gifts that Bush did not have that Reagan did. He spoke in a telegraphic style that was brilliantly lampooned by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live. His attempts to cultivate a Southern persona, which his son did successfully, fell flat. He tried to convince a reporter once that his favorite junk food was pork rinds. He used the phrase “Really deep doo-doo” in an interview once, which no self-respecting Texan would ever say. When asked what he was thinking about when his fighter plane was shot down in World War II, he mumbled a truly bizarre exposition on how he was thinking about freedom of speech as his plane careened perilously toward the ocean. But the problem ran deeper: the rap against Bush has always been his inability communicate a clear direction or agenda— or rather, perhaps that is the point. Bush never really believed that picking an ideological mountain to die on was the best way to govern— rather, you handle problems as they come, you try and see them coming, and you avoid letting your blinders get in the way. To be sure, Bush’s instincts in governing were conservative, but pragmatism was the order of the day, and sometimes it meant that message discipline went by the wayside.
One other thing that’s too important to leave out— while Bush held a number of key positions before becoming president, one thing that really stands out is his effort to cultivate good relationships. Throughout his life, Bush was almost notorious for writing thank-you notes, making timely phone calls when someone was ill or in distress, and sending Christmas cards, to nearly everybody he came across, and very few people ever forgot a kind act he had done for them. So it was in the sundry offices he held: congressman from Texas, Ambassador to China, Ambassador to the U.N., director of the CIA, and finally vice-president. He cultivated not a cult of personality, but slowly built up and maintained and good relationships and earned the loyalty of his colleagues and subordinates. By the time he finally became president in 1989, he worked in so many capacities in so many offices that he was truly the Kevin Bacon of American politics; everybody in Washington was one or two degrees from him, and almost everyone remembered him kindly. He took the time to remember people’s names- again, a simple gesture that can strengthen communication down the road; remember, in contrast, that Reagan habitually addressed his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development “Mr. Mayor.” (Indeed, comparing Reagan and Bush’s governing styles reminds me a bit of the old standby from the Highlights childrens’ magazine, “Goofus and Gallant.”) And he chose capable men with similarly pragmatic orientations, and avoided any die-hard activists of the New Right. Partly for this reason, there was less internal strife in Bush’s administration than most other postwar presidencies. You didn’t really have any noticeable Zbigniew vs. Cyrus Vance, or Powell vs. Rumsfield kind of feuds and rifts that can cripple an administration. And- surprise- his administration had fewer scandals than any other in postwar America. No Plamegates, Watergates, or Zippergates, and no younger brothers making deals with the Libyans.
It is a good thing for Bush that I am only evaluating presidential administrations, and not presidential campaigns, because his 1988 bid for presidency was disgraceful and disgusting. Under the advisement of Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign went out of its way to provoke America’s unresolved racial animosity, including a loaded advertisement showing mostly black inmates going through revolving doors at a prison. The ad was designed to criticize the prison furlough programs in Massachusetts, the state governed by his opponent, Michael Dukakis. (Although Dukakis did not even sign this particular policy into law.) The message was clear: Dukakis will let dangerous black guys back on the streets. Other campaign surrogates called Dukakis a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” (true, but framed in a “his sister is a known thespian” sort of way that thrives on ignorance.) Now, it is disingenuous to portray Michael Dukakis, one of the least ideological men ever nominated for the presidency, as some kind of unhinged radical. But the desperate strategy worked; polls that gave Dukakis a ten-point lead in the summer of 1988 soon gave way to a ten-point deficit as a third Republican landslide in a row transpired. Bush had done what no vice-president had achieved since Martin Van Buren: being elected president while serving as veep.
Despite running one of the more despicable election campaigns, Bush governed as a relative moderate, and ran the presidency with a surer and abler hand than any president since Eisenhower. He controlled his cabinet, and while some advisers were closer to him than others, he was reliant on no one, held the reigns tightly, and showed the same ability to inspire loyalty that served him well in his earlier offices.
Consider how deftly Bush handled the collapse of the Soviet Union. It isn’t difficult at all to imagine Reagan making the situation worse by ill-timed gloating about the free enterprise system. Bush patiently kept tabs on the situation, and avoided any unseemly posturing that might reignite the old Cold War rivalries. Bush wrote in his memoirs about Brent Snowcroft informing him that crowds were picking apart the wall in Berlin. “Although I was elated over what appeared to have happened, I was wary about offering hasty comments,” he remembered. He held an impromptu press conference, and his remarks are an essay in artfully awkward understatement. “I am very pleased with this development,” he said when asked about the Berlin Wall. Reporters pressed him to say something more definitive, more memorable. “I’m not an emotion kind of guy.” The reporter shot back, “How elated are you?” Bush, with a hint of irritation, responded, “I’m very pleased…the fact that I’m not bubbling over-maybe its getting along toward evening…I feel very good about it.” Vintage Bush. It seems obvious today that when events unfolded in a way favorable to the U.S., you should stand back and let them unfold. But it was not so obvious then, and he avoided the temptation to perform some kind of Cold War end-zone dance that could have been harmful in the long run.
Consider also the Persian Gulf War that took place during his term. Bush played it masterfully, implying that he might send forces to Kuwait even if the Senate voted against it, and it is easy to forget that a less adept president might have failed to get the voters necessary to defend the oil-rich satrap; the actual vote in the Senate was 52-47, much closer than public memory allows. Important to remember as well: Bush got us back into the healthy habit of actually declaring war, which we hadn’t done since World War II. It is so easy to forget that we never actually declared at any point during the Cold War; not on Korea, not on Vietnam. Bush asked for a declaration of war, and got it. And he was able to get a coalition from the UN to take part in removing Hussein’s forces. The war was, by all counts, fought competently, with minimal loses of American, enemy, and civilian life, and was over in a mere matter of weeks. H. W. Brands writes, “His new world order would require the cooperation of many other countries, for as powerful as the United States might be, it couldn’t police the world alone.”
And finally, consider the moment for which he is most famously remembered: the “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge. It was classic Bush- trying to appear like a tough Texan, channeling Clint Eastwood, and failing comically- but everyone remembers that Bush didn’t keep his promise, a promise spurred by Grover Norquist’s efforts to get as many Republican congressional and presidential hopefuls to sign his “no tax raises” pledge. The deficit was growing to the point where it was deterring the stock market, and congressional Democrats were not at all willing to cut social programs; too much had already been cut earlier in the 80s. So, Bush compromised. In 1990, he worked with Congress to create a budget that would reduce the deficit through both modest spending cuts and modest tax hikes. He caught a lot of flack for it, and it may have had a role in costing him re-election. Still, I see his decision as a noble one; after the tax-cutting orgies conducted by his predecessor, there had to be a Thermador in the other direction. Few Republicans today have the courage to put the country’s long-term interest over courting the wrath of Grover Norquist. Bush 41 did.
Along these lines: only three presidents from the 20th century had a Congress in which both chambers were held by the opposition party for the duration of their administrations: Bush I, Nixon, and Ford. To his credit, Bush’s relationship with Congress was significantly better than Nixon/Ford’s, and some important legislation came out of their partnership: a bill designed to prevent the fraud and lack of oversight that contributed to the Savings and Loan crisis, a Child Care bill, and maybe most importantly of all, the Americans with Disabilities Act. The latter was the culmination of more than twenty years of activism by Americans with physical handicaps, mandating easier access to public services and private facilities (swimming pools get hoists, restaurants would need to get ramps, and so on, reserved parking spaces, and so on.) Significantly, it established that disabled Americans had a right to equal participation in American life and American leisure, with dignity. It is one of the most significant laws of the 1990s, and Bush signed it without reservation, even if it did, in principle, make the regulatory state bigger.
But there were a number of miscues, particularly with some high-profile appointments, that keep George H. W. Bush from the upper echelons. The first is the truly baffling choice of Dan Quayle as vice-president. It has been suggested that Bush saw a bit of his younger self in the manor-born, eager-to-please Indianan, but frankly, I don’t see the resemblance. Bush served well in most capacities he found himself; Quayle was known to prefer golfing over legislating in Congress, and routinely missed key votes when they interfered with his tee times. And so, you had an almost terrifyingly dense, even spoilt, man a heartbeat away from the presidency, addressing a NASA delegation as “my fellow astronauts”, and commandeering an elementary school spelling bee by insisting “potato” was spelled with an “e” at the end. Poppy- you could have had Orrin Hatch as your vice-president! You could have had Richard Lugar! Warren Rudman. John Danforth. A young John McCain. You could have made history and gone with Nancy Kassebaum. Instead, you pick a twit who didn’t balance the ticket, had no deep policy knowledge, used the “National Guard = Get out of Vietnam” card, and clearly wasn’t presidential material. What in holy hell were you thinking, Poppy? Were you drunk dialing? Did you lose a bet with Peggy Noonan? Did you hit the wrong number on speed-dial and Quayle said ‘yes’ before you realized it wasn’t Bob Dole on the line?
But we only had four years of Quayle, praise Jesus. Maybe the most longstanding malignancy from the Bush years was the selection of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. While his other pick, David Souter, ended up more progressive than Bush intended, very few would question Souter’s ability as a jurist. In contrast, Thomas’s Supreme Court appointment is very nearly a national tragedy, and I’m finding it difficult to write about Thomas without stepping on every racial landline in the American lexicon. It is an ugly stereotype to suggest that a black man is lazy, yet Thomas has not spoken once in nearly a decade of Supreme Court arguments, except to make a baffling swipe at Yale a couple of years ago. It is an ugly stereotype to suggest that a black man only got his job because of affirmative action, but it soon became clear that Thomas, who spent less time in a prestigious law-related office than any Supreme Court jurist in the last 40 years, was a “panic-pick” by Bush who needed a black guy to fill the spot of a much better justice, Thurgood Marshall. And it is perhaps the reigning champ of ugly American stereotypes to suggest that a black man is a sexual predator— and yet the evidence of Thomas sexually harassing Anita Hill grows greater every year, and even some major conservative figures recanted and admitted that Hill underwent a shameful character assassination, and her version of the story was likely the truer one. It seems, at times, that he was designed in a laboratory for the express purpose of frustrating liberals. And, of course, Thomas is the most petulant individual on the court, uninterested in hearing opposing arguments, unwilling to play the devil’s advocate, and even generating a semi-plausible case for impeachment. And even worse, he’s only in his sixties, and we may be stuck with him for another 10 or 15 years. Remember, if Bush had made a more moderate choice in the line of David Souter, the outcome of Bush vs. Gore, Citizens United, and lots of other suspicious cases decided by a 5-4 majority, might have been different.
So- what constitutes presidential success at the end of the day? Robert Merry’s book, Where They Stand, argues in that the ability to get re-elected is the surest signal of a great president- that nobody, in essence, can judge a president like the public of that time. Their fears and hopes and expectations can never be fully gauged by future historians, and we need to give more credit to the public for rewarding presidential competence and punishing failure. That argument is, of course, carcinogenic nonsense. Presidents can mislead the public, or serve the instant gratifications of the day over the long-term security and prosperity of the future. And the public, needless to say, can make stupid choices in the voting booth, the product of both misinformation and a toxic political environment (see, for example, my write-up on Bush the younger.) The presidency of George H. W. Bush proves, I think, that a good president is one who can defy the public and be willing to bear the consequences. The successful president works toward the ages, and knows when to subordinate popularity for the greater good- something Bush’s successor, Mr. Clinton, often did not recognize Like Taft a few generations earlier, you have a perfectly capable, expertly seasoned incumbent who failed to get even 40% of the vote in re-election. Like Taft, he made both conservatives and progressives nervous and faced a shaky economy going into re-election. And like Taft, a third-party candidate addled the calculus of that re-election, in this case another rich, wonky Texan, Ross Perot by name. And so, George Bush I, a president who once had record approval ratings hovering around 90% became one of only four presidents in the twentieth century to seek a second term and fail in the attempt.
Here’s the lesson of the Bush-41 presidency, if we are digging for its significance: experience matters; some presidents can overcome their relative lack of experience or even use it as an advantage; Lincoln certainly did. But if you have to chose between experience and no experience, experience always wins. And when the most competent president of my lifetime is also the only president of my lifetime to fail in getting re-elected, we need to rethink the system of how we choose presidents, and how we evaluate their success. Bush showed that you could succeed as a president without a flashy media presence, a prolific First 100 Days, or any pretensions to populism at all. If you work hard, use what you’ve learned, and privilege facts over assumptions, you will go far. You can strengthen your office and your country…just don’t count on the public giving you much credit. I wouldn’t have voted for him, but I can appreciate a job well done. Congratulations, Poppy— you are the highest one-term president in my ranking, and welcome, at long last, to the top ten.