December 3, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Straight Talk about GHW Bush
He wasn’t a good president, but he wasn’t a particularly bad one either.
It’s appropriate for a former president to get the kind of attention George H.W. Bush is receiving. As with the death of any significant national figure, his passing offers an occasion to reflect on Bush’s life, his legacy, and his impact on present-day politics.
True, there is a bit of hagiography going on. (OK, a lot!) That’s partly the result of respect for the dearly departed. But it’s also the consequence of a lying, thieving, philandering sadist holding the venerable office once occupied by Bush the Elder.
Remember the same thing happened after John McCain died. It was as if Americans yearned to imbue the late senator with all aspects of statesmanship that Donald Trump lacks, even if that meant veering off into make-believe. George Bush is no exception. The longing to pay tribute to the man will inevitably gloss over the reality of his legacy, and spark a backlash among critics willing to appear disrespectful of the dead.
So a lot of what you’re seeing on cable news and reading in national news outlets is less about George Bush, more about Donald Trump, which is rather unhelpful to those of us who’d prefer a perspective stripped of most but not all sentiment (the man’s dead, after all) in order to get a clearer view of how our present is a product of the past.
Bush wasn’t a good president, but he wasn’t a particularly bad one either. Yes, he continued the harmful domestic policies set forth by the previous administration, but all Republicans since Ronald Reagan have attacked social insurance. Bush did sign into law, under pressure from Democrats, the Americans with Disabilities Act. His critics won’t credit him, but they should. He could have vetoed it, but didn’t.
He was the last Republican, not just presidents, to take budgets seriously. That is, he’s the last to agree to raising taxes when revenues were the only way of solving the fiscal crisis created by his former boss. Every single Republican leader since 1991 has promoted the lie that tax cuts pay for themselves. They don’t, and never have, not even in Reagan’s time. But Bush had the guts to break a pledge not to raise income taxes.
He’s also the last Republican president to advance a foreign policy, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, in the interest of a liberal international order. That was the rationale for the first Gulf War, in which Bush led a coalition to push Saddam Hussein’s armies back into Iraq. Kuwait was nation whose sovereignty must be recognized and whose borders must be enforced. To be sure, Bush’s “New World Order” privileged moneyed American interests, but diplomacy was his primary focus. He did not believe, as his son later did as president, that liberal democracy can grow out of the barrel of a gun.
Many believe the elder Bush wasn’t as racist as subsequent Republican leaders, and there’s probably some truth to that, but only some. As Erik Loomis reminded us over the weekend, Bush race-baited his way into the House of Representatives. The Willie Horton television ad, which cemented his 1988 presidential victory over Democrat Michael Dukakis, remains the gold standard of the so-called Southern strategy.
Richard Ben Cramer, who wrote What It Takes, the definitive book about the 1988 election, gave readers the impression that Bush only reluctantly accepted Lee Atwater’s and Roger Ailes’ advice to attack Dukakis with the Horton ad. This might be the source of the mistaken view that Bush wasn’t as racist as other Republicans.
Truth is, Bush was no liberal. He believed in noblesse oblige, to be sure, but he was still the scion of Yankee blue bloods, meaning that he was deeply conservative. It’s not that he minded race-baiting. It worked for him before. What he minded, in 1988, was doing it himself, or having the strategy blow back to dirty his patrician self-image.
While we shouldn’t overlook his racism, neither should we overlook that Bush’s presidency really did mark a transition in the history of the GOP. Bush campaigned one way but governed another. He used dog-whistle tactics to win the GOP base, but made decisions once in power that betrayed it. (For instance, raising income taxes.) Pat Buchanan saw this better than anyone when he challenged Bush in 1992, ultimately wounding the incumbent mortally. From that point onward, Republican ways of campaigning increasingly crept into Republican ways of governing.
Donald Trump is no anomaly.
Our present is a product of the past.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.