George H.W. Bush was that rarest of rarities: a genuinely modest man in the office of the presidency. He was always uncomfortable with the word “I,” to the point where it was difficult for him to campaign on his accomplishments. He could form a genuine post-presidential friendship with Bill Clinton, the man who had defeated him in 1992. He cheerfully accepted that his party made a hero of Ronald Reagan, but not him. And when his own son won the presidency in turn, he preserved absolute silence about the advice (if any) he offered and about the differences (although many) between them.
So many of the men who have sought the presidency seem impelled by a desire to compensate for something missing in themselves. George H.W. Bush was missing nothing. Born to wealth and position, he gained more by his own efforts. He fought bravely in war, and excelled at sports, scholarship, and business. He’d made a sufficient fortune by age 40—but nothing like the vast accumulations that lead contemporary self-funders to turn to politics as if a governorship or senatorship were one more thing their money could buy. Instead, he seem inspired by a much older American idea: that once a man has enough, it’s indecent to seek more; that a man who has made a success of the first half of his life owes the second half to the service of his community, his state, and his country.
So many of the men who have gained the presidency were magnificent monsters, craving the cheering of millions but indifferent to personal relationships. In everything except his achievements, the elder Bush was a more normal man. He had friends, not just political allies. He delighted in his family. He found love, comfort, and consolation in a marriage that was as much a marriage at the end as at the joyous and passionate start.
George H.W. Bush would have led a finished and triumphant life if he had decided back in 1976 that he was satisfied to retire on his startling list of offices and appointments: member of Congress, ambassador to China, CIA director, Republican National Committee chair. Instead, he threw himself into the great Himalaya climb of modern presidential politics, campaigning relentlessly, fundraising tirelessly. Yet all his work only led to him back and back and back again to face the one continuing failure of his otherwise dazzling career: his inability to gain the trust of the activist base of his chosen political party.
Even when he did at length inherit the presidency in 1989, his relationship with the Republican party remained tentative and conditional. In the New Hampshire primary of 1992, Bush lost more than one third of the vote to a challenge by the pugnacious right-wing TV personality Pat Buchanan. Buchanan’s exposure of Bush’s vulnerability was then exploited by Ross Perot. Republican pollsters estimate that some four fifths of Perot’s 19 percent share of the ultimate 1992 vote came from people who had voted for Bush in 1988. On Election Day, Bush was defeated with 37.45 percent of the vote, less than Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Yet in the years since, Bush’s reputation has commenced a fascinating recovery. The decision that hurt him so much with his own party—the budget deal of 1990—enabled the budget surpluses of the later 1990s. His decision to halt the war with Saddam Hussein at the Iraq-Kuwait border has been retrospectively rehabilitated by his son’s decision to do the opposite. Bush lost reelection largely because of a recession that had already ended well before voting day—that indeed would soon metamorphose into the strongest and broadest economic expansion since World War II. That recession, in turn, was not his fault, but instead the legacy of a financial crisis incubated under his predecessor, the S&L disaster of the 1980s. Bush received all the blame for the financial meltdown he inherited and none of the credit for the recovery he set in motion.
Bush often very deliberately went slow—or said no. His successors, by contrast, have done huge “somethings”—wars, stimulus programs—that have yielded disappointing results.
In 1967, the independent left-wing journalist Murray Kempton published a deservedly famous essay, “The Underestimation of Dwight Eisenhower,” that argued that the then much-mocked Ike deserved more respect: eight years of peace and prosperity were nothing to dismiss—especially not when seen from the vantage point of the war, tumult, riot, and accelerating inflation of the late 1960s.
The Bush family had been supporters of President Eisenhower’s: President Bush’s father, Senator Prescott Bush, had been a favorite Eisenhower golfing partner. In the “like Ike” spirit, another independent-minded journalist, Jonathan Rauch, published in 2000 an equally powerful reappraisal of H.W. Bush:
“[T]he contempt that intellectuals and activists feel for Bush reflects poorly on them, not him. In the standard post-JFK view, a president is meant to say and do great and mighty things: inspire the young to public service, realign politics, adopt big new programs (or, if you’re a conservative, abolish big old ones).”
Rauch cited an array of Bush accomplishments of good government and responsible management and concluded:
“If Bush had done nothing more than peacefully close out the cold war, clear up the S&L crisis, and lance the Nicaraguan boil, that would, I think, be enough to qualify him as an imposing figure among recent presidents, even (or especially) compared with Reagan. And then there is the Gulf war.
I opposed the Gulf war in 1990. It seemed to me that America’s interest in rolling back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, while important, was not worth the risk of a military quagmire. Surely the coalition would split, or sand would disable the helicopters, or the assault would bog down; and in any case it would all be fantastically expensive. To this day I believe I would have been right but for one thing: Bush. I won’t rehash what is by now a familiar story—Bush’s virtuosity in assembling and maintaining the coalition, the unwavering determination that brought Congress and the public around, the dramatic success of the war effort itself. As an almost comical frosting on the cake, Bush even managed to turn a profit on the war, since the allies overpaid for it.”
Rauch ended with one haunting observation, a question not about George H.W. Bush, but about us, and especially about the hyper-active political expectations of the modern media era. Bush received endless criticism from both his opponents and his party base because he just did not seem to do enough. Bush did plenty. And yet, he also often very deliberately went slow—or said no. Rauch: “Bush’s error was failing to explain why he was doing the right thing by doing nothing.”
It’s an error his successors have avoided, through 20 years of doing huge “somethings”—wars, stimulus programs—that yield disappointing results. And perhaps the most enduring result of all those somethings may be to rehabilitate the reputation of the good man and effective leader who avoided the temptation to plunge into similar “somethings” of his own.