This article was originally published on November 16, 2016. We re-issue it today as news comes of the former President’s death.
On this day, over a quarter of a century ago, the best living former President of the United States was elected. George Walker Herbert Bush is not the most eloquent man to have held the office. Nor is he the most electorally successful. Nor was he the most popular with his own party: how could he have been, when he followed Ronald Reagan? Nor is he identified, like “the Gipper”, with representing a body of ideas, reflecting America back to itself, and changing the course of history. But Bush was a fine President, in at least one way a better one than Reagan, and his reputation continues to grow – towering over the moral dwarf who succeeds him as Republican candidate today.
Admittedly, Bush travelled belief-light. He wooed the Goldwater right when he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, abandoned it once elected to the House of Representatives – where he voted for civil rights as a moderate Republican – stayed in the broad centre of his party when he contested the Presidency in 1978, and then tacked back to the right again when fighting the 1988 election, which he won in a near-landslide, carrying 40 states…only to return to the political middle ground once governing. All this is a rough and impressionistic take on his progress, but none the less an accurate one.
What held Bush together as a politician was less conviction than character – and expectation. He was born into the aristocracy of the Republican Party: his father, Prescott Bush, was an anti-McCarthy senator and Eisenhower’s golfing companion. The family can trace its lineage back to the Mayflower: the former President himself, we read, is a 13th cousin of the Queen. (Patrick Buchanan, who challenged Bush for his party’s nomination in 1992, mocked him as “King George”.) “Poppy” Bush was the fourth family member to study at Yale, where he captained the baseball team, won a prize for “capacity for leadership” and was “last man tapped” for the Skull & Bones – “a distinction reserved for the leading Yale undergraduate of his day”, in the words of his biographer, Jon Meacham.
By then, he had already married his sweetheart, Barbara Pierce. But there was more to Bush’s story to date than effortless superiority. Volunteering to serve in the Second World War, like so many of his generation, he became the youngest pilot in the U.S Navy, and was nearly killed in action. His plane was shot down while trying to knock out a Japanese radio transmission station. His two fellow crewmen died. Bush leaped from the plane, injuring his head on the back of it, and ripped his parachute, dropping faster because of the tear. He was lucky not to fall into the hands of the Japanese, being eventually fished out of the water by an American submarine.
Post-Yale, following his father’s preference for making one’s own way, he turned his back on banking and headed down to Texas, where he did well enough in the oil business (though he didn’t make a fortune). But the weight of political – indeed, presidential – expectation already hung heavily on him, as it had done even before he entered Yale. Texas was risky political country for a Republican in the 1960s, and Bush first lost a Senate race before winning a seat in the House…and then contesting the Senate again and losing again. But although he had already made an impression on his party, he never quite made it, in this early stage of his career, to the Vice-Presidential slot on the Republican ticket that he was tipped for.
Instead came a series of glittering appointments marred by ghastly timing. He was America’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations at a time when the President who appointed him, Nixon, was widely distrusted abroad. (“What am I to do with this turkey?” Kissinger allegedly complained.) He then became Chairman of the Republican National Committee – Party Chairman, as we would say here – just in time for Watergate. A interlude as Ambassador to China, a post that Bush asked for, was interrupted by his appointment as Director of the CIA at a time when it was mired in scandal and congressional investigations.
“Both George and Barbara Bush cried when they heard the offer,” writes another biographer, Timothy Naftali. “It seemed to them to mark the end of Bush’s political career”. Not so. He performed creditably in the Republican presidential primaries before the 1980 contest, winning a raft of states in the north-east. But Reagan didn’t want the runner-up on the ticket: he was unimpressed by Bush’s conduct during a showdown in New Hampshire, in which the latter was outmanoeuvered over the terms of a debate. Reagan’s team originally wanted Gerald Ford as Vice-President. But having a former President in the post would have been unworkable. When Reagan came to realise this, and suddenly cast around for a replacement, the safest bet was Bush.
The vice-presidency is a tricky assignment. If you try to do too much, you risk seeming to undermine the President. If you do too little, you will fade away. Bush was outstandingly loyal – there was no more talk of “voodoo economics” – and gradually won Reagan’s trust. In particular, he behaved immaculately when the President was shot in 1981, shrewdly spurning an offer of taking a helicopter to the south lawn of the White House while Reagan lay injured in hospital. “I’ll miss our Thursday lunches,” the latter wrote in a note to Bush at the end of his own Presidency, after scribbling the words: “Don’t let the turkeys get you down”.
Yes, Bush succeeded Reagan in 1988, having survived the Iran-Contra scandal, and having then defeated the Democrat candidate, Michael Dukakis. Bush was judged likely to lose at one point, but a savage election campaign, led by Lee Atwater, turned the contest round. Reagan’s successor as Republican candidate was distrusted on the right of the party, and Bush over-compensated in consequence, making his famous pledge: “read lips: no new taxes”. It was one that he abandoned in office. Perhaps in reaction to his predecessor, “the Great Communicator”, he didn’t strive to explain why. Bush believed that action, and not words, would be enough: that the American people would grasp that the deficit had to be reduced without the case having to be pitched to them.
It turned out not to be so – and, in any event, there is a cycle in politics. The Republicans had won three successive presidential elections, and America wanted change by 1992. That the country had been in recession helped to drive the mood. But Bush was right about the public finances. “The deficit is big enough to look after itself,” Reagan once said, but to say so is to laugh reality off, or try to. Indeed, Bush’s stewardship of the economy, by an irony of the kind familiar in politics, helped to pave the way for two terms of the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton.
Elsewhere at home, Bush got a lot done in his single term, working with Congress to improve education, expand free trade, protect the environment, and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act – the model for our own Disability Discrimination Act, steered through by William Hague under John Major. And abroad, Bush brought all his experience to bear at a tumultous time. His judgement call was to back Gorbachev, who he originally distrusted, and it proved to be right. Bush eased the collapse of communism by not publicly celebrating the fact. America was the dominant world power by the time Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Bush used its position to form an overarching international coalition that took the country back.
The once-dashing pilot is now in a wheelchair, having made a final jump on his 90th birthday. His presidency was flawed, of course, but all presidencies are – and it doesn’t look at all bad in retrospect. A measure of the man is his attitude to the man who beat him. “Dear Bill,” he wrote in a note to Clinton, as he himself left the White House, There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck – George.”