George H.W. Bush Saw Strength in Compromise. Then He Paid the Price for It.
Bush, recalled one old sparring mate, ‘campaigned like a street fighter, but he decided he would govern as a gentleman.’
We pay respects to our 41st president for his lifetime of public service, and we marvel at how he was able to set aside the rough edges of a campaign when it was time to govern.
He was director of the CIA, envoy to China, ambassador to the United Nations, RNC chair, and vice president for eight years under Ronald Reagan.
In none of these positions did he leave much of a mark before assuming the presidency in 1989. He had a remarkable ability to dodge controversy. He was a president so understated that he could fade into the wallpaper between his predecessor, tall-in-the-saddle Reagan, and his successor, feel-your-pain Bill Clinton.
His passing at age 94 gives us a chance to reevaluate his faults, and his gifts, which often are one and the same, and weigh the message they send to today’s politicians.
Bush first ran for president in 1980, and when a charismatic two-term governor and movie actor from California overtook him on the campaign trail, Bush moved aside easily enough that Reagan made him vice president and installed his top campaign adviser, James Baker, as White House chief of staff.
Brilliant moves for the country as it turned out, and all Bush had to do was quit talking about “voodoo economics,” which he dubbed Reagan’s proposal to cut taxes and raise defense spending without increasing the deficit. He also agreed to set aside his moderate pro-choice views and give lip service to the rising conservative opposition to Planned Parenthood.
It was a bargain that Bush willingly made, and during his eight years as vice president, there was never a whisper of disloyalty to Reagan. Bush wasn’t in Washington during the attempt on Reagan’s life on March 30, 1980. He quickly returned to the White House but wouldn’t allow his helicopter to land on the South Lawn. “Only the president does that,” he said.
The two men had a weekly lunch, and Bush always came armed with a new joke to amuse Reagan. (Sample: A Russian says he has all the same rights to protest as an American, that just as Americans go to Lafayette Park to rail against Reagan, a Russian can go to Gorky Park and rail against… Reagan!)
When the Iran-Contra scandal embroiled Reagan’s second term, Bush claimed he was “out of the loop” and steadfastly refused to turn over contemporary diary notes to a special prosecutor.
When it came time for him to wage a campaign of his own after eight years of being overshadowed by Reagan, Bush faced some headwinds. Newsweek picked up on a term that was being whispered about Bush, with a cover that showed a determined and virile Bush piloting his cigarette boat. “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor,’” it said.
That was the same week Bush formally announced he was running for president, and he came out swinging. By the general election, he was assailing Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” and questioning the Democrat’s patriotism for failing to require grade-schoolers to say the pledge of allegiance each morning. Bush looked the other way when his campaign condoned the infamous Willie Horton ad that played on fears about crime to tap into racist sentiments. His top campaign adviser, Lee Atwater, would later apologize to Dukakis.
Bush believed the alpha male wins, and to be tagged as weak or compromising was a political death ticket. The Republican Party was leaving behind its country-club base for a new and more muscular conservatism. Bush’s need to fight the wimp factor led directly to his “no new taxes” pledge at the Republican Convention. The crowd in the Houston Convention Center loved it.
Bush had no problem being a tough partisan. He saw politics as a dirty business, and he would do what he had to. But when the campaign was over, he would start with a fresh slate. There was a difference between the rough and tumble of a campaign, and the responsibilities of governing.
“The wimpiness charge related much more to his style than substance. He was a prep school kid, and he had that air about him,” says Matt Bennett with Third Way, who worked professionally against Bush in two campaign cycles. Bennett did advance work for the Dukakis campaign, and he remembers how the wimp charge was “completely annihilated” when the Bush campaign aired video of Bush being rescued after his plane was shot down during World War II. “It was this grainy footage that shows them fishing him from out of the water,” says Bennett. “It was a devastatingly effective visual.”
Asked how he squares that Bush with the Bush who let the Willie Horton ad go forward, Bennett, in an echo of Mario Cuomo’s famous line about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose, says that Bush “gave himself over to the consultants–(Roger) Ailes and Atwater and Roger Stone. He campaigned like a street fighter, but he decided he would govern as a gentleman.”
Bush drew a line between campaigning and governing. True to his New England boarding school heritage, he saw politics as a dirty business. He would do what was necessary to win, and then it was over. That was how you played the game. He never expressed any regrets over the 1988 campaign.
When Bush delivered his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1989, he promised a “kinder and gentler” presidency. Kinder and gentler than whom, Nancy Reagan wondered. She took it as a slight aimed at her husband. It also might have been Bush turning the page after a brutal campaign.
He didn’t have to prove himself now that he was in command. There was nothing wimpy about stopping short of going into Baghdad after waging a successful 100-hour war to dislodge Kuwait from Iraq. The restraint Bush showed would be contrasted with his son’s barreling into Iraq a dozen years later and getting the country embroiled in a non-winnable war.
He cut a deal on tax hikes with the Democrats once he realized the deficit was out of control, even after he said he wouldn’t. It's human and, arguably, stronger to know when to say enough. But the risks are what they are, and breaking that promise probably cost Bush his second term.
“If you define strength as being unyielding, he was strong in a better way,” says William Galston, a scholar with the Brookings Institution who promotes bipartisan efforts at compromise.
At a time when the conservative hardliners were on the ascendancy in his party, Bush made the tough calls that were the right ones for the country. He wasn’t rewarded with a second term. Doing the right thing takes courage, and as Bush learned, recognition comes after the fact, if ever.