“It is budget, budget, budget,” the president dictated to his diary on October 4, 1990. Frustrated by congressional resistance to acting responsibly and raising taxes, appalled by Congress’s “Small Time … Trivial Pursuit” approach, America’s forty-first president was as angry as he allowed himself to get. One month later, on November 5, breaking his “Read my lips, no new taxes” campaign promise, President George Herbert Walker Bush signed a bold, deficit-reducing budget.
Now, 25 years later, what Bush’s biographer Jon Meacham correctly calls a “politically toxic” decision looks more like a statesmanlike move that helped spawn the ’90s prosperity. Bill Clinton, who beat Bush up for breaking the “no new tax” pledge in 1992, then as president balanced the budget thanks to those raised taxes, now hails his old rival. Interviewed for the Pulitzer-prizewinning Meacham’s Destiny and Power: the American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Clinton said, “Bush 41 was the only Republican around who knew that anything that consistently defies arithmetic can’t work for very long.”
This moment helps explain today’s George H.W. Bush revival, as his standing soars in the post-presidential reputation stock market. Amid a 2016 campaign that already feels endless, enervating, and idiotic—with 11 months to go—with our gridlocked politics, cultural confusion, and social alienation, Bush’s four years look better and better. The first Bush presidency now is considered a patriotic idyll, with his raising taxes the swan song of an American hero and his selfless Greatest Generation.
The balanced budget joins a list of other Bush accomplishments that look better in retrospect. He kicked Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait during the first Persian Gulf War, without a messy occupation. He smoothed the Cold War’s final act, as the Soviet Union fell and Eastern Europe went free. He negotiated NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which also boosted the ’90s economy. And he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, and the 1991 Civil Rights Act, a liberal troika that would make any Democratic president feel Mount Rushmore-worthy.
Bush 41 nostalgia evokes a supposedly, “kinder, gentler,” more bipartisan time. It helps Democrats remember themselves as more generous than they were, rationalizing their partisanship today by contrasting today’s Republican candidate pygmies with Bush the First. It helps critics of George W. Bush’s fiscal deficits and foreign policy misadventures, using the father’s budgetary statesmanship and geopolitical moderation to bash the son.
The Bush love-in also helps Republicans celebrate “honor, duty, country” by giving them a hero from their side of the aisle, and by implying that the now-beloved ex-president’s other politically-active son, Jeb Bush, might be worth reconsidering. If, this logic goes, George H.W. Bush’s political awkwardness actually reflected nobility, maybe Jeb’s maladroitness does, too. After all, Meacham writes about Bush the elder, “His was one of the great American lives … starting with strong parents, a sparkling education, heroic service in World War II,” then a golden resume honed during decades of public service.
Meacham’s biography about this delightfully old-fashioned president is also delightfully old-fashioned. They don’t make ’em like they used to: this well-bred WASP survived being shot down over the Pacific in World War II, boldly built a Texas oil business, then served as a congressman, Republican National Party chairman, U.N. ambassador, CIA director, ambassador to China, vice president, and president. And they usually don’t write ’em like they used to, either. Meacham’s method suits his subject: the best way to appreciate Bush’s admittedly impressive life is to keep a frantic pace, pile up the achievements and compliments, and bypass most analysis.
Meacham’s 600-page valentine relies on George and Barbara Bush’s detailed diaries, and the access Meacham enjoyed to them and their circles. But Meacham rarely integrates Bush’s perspective with the voluminous archival documents. Nor does the author fully explain Bush’s life in the context of “Two of the great forces in American life after World War II,” America’s “global responsibilities” and “the rise” of the Republican right. Historical phenomena pop up occasionally, but the play by play focusing on what Bush did rarely illuminates how those forces played out—and how they ultimately doomed Bush to a one-term presidency.
Similarly, Bush’s bumbles, botches, and blindspots are treated more like someone belching at a Bush soiree—to be ignored quickly—rather than opportunities for historical insight.
Reading this breathless account of George H.W. Bush, the modern-day hero, few will understand why he lost in 1992. The culture wars that polarized Americans are rarely mentioned. The president’s four flipflops before approving the tax increase are similarly overlooked. The growing frustration over the fact that this president did not care about domestic affairs, that he felt politics was beneath him, and that three Reagan-Bush terms had produced a crankier, more confused, and less confident middle class, does not get the attention it deserves from Meacham, paralleling Bush’s own negligence.
Ultimately, this well-researched, well-written, straightforward tale is more Kennebunkport than Kinsey Report, more Pearl Harbor than Pearl Jam, more touch football than tackle, more suited to a Connecticut Country Club than a university seminar. It is refreshing not to read yet another Washington “gotcha” tell all, vacuuming up whatever dirt is available. And it is inspiring to read about a well-mannered, good-hearted, gentleman-patriot who rose to become president, serving, in Meacham’s own coinage, as a “steward.” But it would have been more illuminating to be more critical, to bring in more perspectives, to integrate Bush’s life with his surroundings. It is hard to believe, for instance, that Barbara Bush’s well-known prickliness never seemed to be an issue, or that Jeb Bush's Mexican-born wife Columba "was something of an enigma" because she was too “quiet and private” rather than Catholic and Hispanic.
Today, it seems readers want sharp-elbowed partisan slams or e-z listening toasts. George H.W. Bush’s reputation will benefit from this salute. But his historical legacy still demands a more muscular, balanced analysis, understanding his successes and failures, his personal shortcomings and his impressive character, charting the complex relations among all these in an era when, to his shock, Bush would lose the presidency to someone he considered a “draft-dodger.”