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The Political Character of Our 41st President

The passing of a former President is always an important time to remember his term in office.

There is a norm that says that we should not say negative things about a person who has recently passed away. And I think the norm makes great sense for persons who personally knew a private individual who has died. But I don’t think the norm makes much sense when we attempt to remember a former President’s performance. That is a matter for political analysis.

From what people say who knew him, it appears that George H. W. Bush was a fine man who had many admirable qualities. And I know that he did some good things in office, such as executing the Gulf War. But I believe that George Bush’s presidency was marred by a fatal flaw that involved both his political integrity and policy performance. Given that defect, it is hard to praise his political character.

George Bush was handed the presidency on a silver platter by Ronald Reagan. And George Bush responded ungratefully by undermining the principles on which the Reagan presidency was based.

After the Reagan presidency, the country was strong both economically and militarily. The next Republican candidate would have a great advantage in running for the presidency. With this advantage, Bush was able to keep the presidency in the Republican Party’s hands for four more years, something that has been quite unusual since the end of World War II.

Republicans and the nation were suspicious of Bush. He had criticized Reagan for embracing what he called “voodoo economics.” So when he ran for president, he had to convince Republicans and the nation that he would stand firm on Reaganite principles. The main way that he sought to persuade them was through his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge. For those who have not heard it, it was astounding. Bush went on and on about how he would not raise taxes, even if the Congress pushed and pushed and pushed.

But what happened? Congress pushed and he agreed to raise taxes. Now, this was stupid both economically and politically. The taxes were not good for the economy. But more importantly, how could anyone trust a man who had made this a central pillar of his campaign? His broken pledge no doubt significantly contributed to his loss in the next election and his resulting status as a one term president.

But it was not just the broken pledge that was problematic. Bush had presented himself as someone who would continue the popular policies of the Reagan Administration. His was going to be the third term of the Reagan presidency. Instead, Bush double-crossed Reagan and his followers. Once he had secured the nomination, he started talking about “a kinder and gentler” nation. As Nancy Reagan is reported to have said, “kinder and gentler than whom”? Everyone knew—kinder and gentler than the Reagan Administration.

And when Bush assumed the presidency, he purged the government of Reaganites, replacing them with Bush loyalists. It is fine for a President to bring his own people in. The problem was that these people did not believe in the Reaganite principles. They were “pragmatists” who sought to compromise those principles—as they did on new taxes and many other policies.

In the end, Bush did not engage in honorable behavior. He falsely portrayed himself to get the presidency and then opportunistically broke his promise. But his behavior was not just shameful. It also ended the Reagan era. The possibility of 16 years of a Reagan Revolution was destroyed.

I am sad for George Bush’s family and friends. But I do not mourn much of his presidency.

Reader Discussion

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on December 04, 2018 at 07:47:39 am

Allow me to underscore one point: the George H. W. Bush Administration *sought* to violate the "No. New. TAXES!" pledge. As Dick Darman said in his memoir, Darman entered his first budget negotiations *seeking* a tax increase to put the issue behind the administration. That's right: before the negotiations began, Darman decided the promise would be broken.

To my mind, all the Bush family talk about George H. W. Bush's integrity, principles, etc., is a mockery.

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Kevin R. C. Gutzman
on December 04, 2018 at 09:34:42 am

Praise the Lord! Rappaport got it right about GHWB. Now pass the gas mask so I can continue breathing through another week of GHWB hagiography on the part of those hypocrites in the media and politics (Democrat and Republican) who despised that good man while he was in office.

GHWB was a man ever in search of a sterling resume. And he succeeded bigly. His resume was solid silver, and it sang beautifully. Very few men, and no other presidents, in American history have looked more attractive and sounded more impressive on paper. And, in my lifetime, perhaps only Eisenhower and Reagan could match his likeability. But few presidents can claim failures that were as existentially-important as the failures of GHWB, and a great many presidents can claim modest successes equal in number and quality to his few.

Anne Richards of Texas got it right (as she seldom did in her foul-mouthed career) when, at the Democratic Convention in 1988, she mocked presidential candidate Bush's confused, confusing political rhetoric, which would be a hallmark of his presidency. Richards sneered, "George was born with a silver foot in his mouth." Also at that Democratic Convention Ted Kennedy displayed his usual obtuse unawareness of moral irony by delivering a speech filled with a litany of specific national crises, ending each reference by leading the audience in a chant of the phrase, "Where was George?" (Mary Joe Kopechne probably asked the same question about Ted as she sat trapped and terrorized in a car slowly filling with sea water.) But in the summer of 1988 the" Lion of the Senate' (can anyone think of a more inapt accolade?) got GHWB's future presidency right. Over the next four years Bush was missing in action on major battles in which the conservative legacy and future was on the line, and he would go on to fail the cause he inherited.

There are three reasons for GHWB's inexcusable failure to carry out the most important job of his life, that of perpetuating the conservative mission of Ronald Reagan which GHWB had been elected to carry forward. These reasons are: 1) GHWB's purge of the Reaganauts in 1989 (as Rappaport correctly noted;) 2) the quality of men and women he brought on to advise him on regulatory and economic matters after his purge of the Reaganites. One of these, as Rappaport noted, was the architect of GHWB's "new taxes" betrayal, Richard Darman, a Rockefeller Republican if there ever was one, a fact which enabled him to survive GHWB's 1989 purge of the Reaganauts. (As an interesting note about Darman, years ago in an auction I purchased a bunch of books that had belonged to Elliot Richardson, one of which had this inscription: "To Elliot, the man many of us thought should have been president. Dick Darman.") and 3) most importantly, GHWB was a "RINO" before the term was invented. Indeed, he set the standards for defining it.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 04, 2018 at 10:20:43 am

No other president in American history looked more attractive and sounded more impressive on paper? That's false: the first five did, the sixth arguably did, and the fifteenth did, just for starters. The Bush family's propaganda about his having been the most qualified president in history is just that: propaganda.

Take the third president, Thomas Jefferson, for example: he had been a vestryman, burgess, congressman, state representative, governor, ambassador to France, secretary of state, party chief, and vice president before he became president. Besides having held these positions, he had in several of them -- burgess, congressman, secretary of state, party chieftain -- left important legacies.

I could say similar things about Washington, Adams, Madison, Monroe, and, arguably, the other Adams, and maybe others.

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Kevin R. C. Gutzman
on December 04, 2018 at 11:00:46 am

Your points are reasonable. My conclusion would be that resume qualifications for national office are best met (on paper) by a record of national political experience in matters of national governance and national security: Ambassador to China, Director of CIA and 8 years as VEEP to Reagan during the height of and victory in the Cold War (the most dire threat in history) constitute ON PAPER the most impressive record of national experience in national governance and national security. His military record AND term in Congress are two minor supplements of that paper record, but two additions which only Monroe of your candidates can match.

The men you cite (except for Jefferson) were all far more effective presidents than GHWB (even the unappreciated JQ Adams, whose resume in national security political service is the only one that approaches GHWB's) and, except for Jefferson and JQ Adams, far better qualified temperamentally to be president than was GHWB. But their resumes were not nearly as impressive on the areas on national importance.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 04, 2018 at 12:31:26 pm

There is a mantra:

DUTY
HONOR
COUNTRY

which is far more appropriate to evaluate the character of an individual, given a devolution of powers and tasks over a lifetime, than practically any other modes of evaluation.

That mantra bespeaks motivations that are now no loger sufficiently widely formed, or regarded, such that evaluations of "political effectiveness" become the ephemera of thought and meaningless.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on December 04, 2018 at 15:23:04 pm

Churchill once remarked (paraphrasing here, kiddies) "if the Devil were to align himself against Hitler, I imagine i would find a kind word to say about him."

To the extent that GHWB aligned himself with republican principles, perhaps we may find it within ourselves to find a kind, or at least a not unkind word.

Perhaps his failures are the result of a pronounced sense of noblesse oblige compelling him to counter some of the Reagan initiatives which his sense of obligation encourage him to change.

I think that is "not unkind."

I agree with my friend Richard above.

DUTY
HONOR
COUNTRY

How we make manifest our recognition of those *obligations* is a function of our own *particular8 circumstances and understandings. We are quite often wrong (at least I am); the fact of our error does not negate the evidence of our proper discharge of those obligations.

Again, I hope that these are "not unkind" words. I think that any man who may be said to have recognized those obligations deserves nothing less.

Requiescet in pace!!!!

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gabe
on December 04, 2018 at 16:10:40 pm

It is sad that the great gift of America's founding elites to the nation and to the popular culture, "DUTY HONOR COUNTRY," does, indeed, constitute but a mere "mantra" these days, a mere mantra that is too often spoken derisively of traditional elites who, for their class distinction, are badly out-of-favor in a low-brow, homogenized culture that is plagued by the malice of envy and who are derided for their supposed antediluvian values on matters of tradition, moral character and political philosophy. General Douglas MacArthur spoke the phrase "DUTY HONOR COUNTRY" most dramatically in a setting and at a time in our history when it was not yet a mere mantra and when the likes of Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur personified America's ruling class and America's cultural inheritance of patriotic nationalism, a class-based heritage of moral meritocracy that was then in our cultural DNA and that was traceable then in a direct historical line back to the Founders.

Without doubt the CHARACTER of GHWB is of that high class and merits history's high approval according to the high standards of that high class. But character is not all of destiny for a man who would be statesman. The broader standards by which "the man who would be king" must be judged must consider not just moral grounding (character) but political principles, political vision and the political capacity to advance both while retaining the moral ground that is the bedrock of character.

And on these three standards, his political principles (what were they?,) his political vision (what was it?) and his political capacity to advance his political principles and his political vision (not to be found except in an unwarranted eagerness to compromise principle for political expediency,) GHWB must be fairly judged as badly lacking.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 04, 2018 at 16:32:14 pm

What on earth are you thinking? The fact that GHW Bush was to the manor born doesn't mean that his ethics were pure. He's best remembered for having gratuitously broken his central campaign pledge ("Read my lips....") at the first opportunity and for demagogically staging a campaign rally at a flag factory. He also ran as a constitutionalist and then appointed David Souter to the Supreme Court even after Souter had testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he admired Justice William Brennan, the most stridently anti-originalist justice in history. This was not the behavior of a man of character.

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Kevin R. C. Gutzman
on December 04, 2018 at 17:38:40 pm

I think that you continue both to misunderstand what I'm saying about GHWB (that he was largely a stellar resume on paper in deliberate but misguided pursuit of a substantive reputation, an honorable empty suit, if you will) and to fail to recognize that, accepting as true arguendo the contemporary hagiography as to his character (much of it from those in the media who actually despised him when he held office,) GHWB the public figure must be considered as seriously substantively wanting.

I'm largely on your side re GHWB as a political leader, yet you fail to recognize it. In my opinion (and it's just my opinion) you also distort GHWB's authentic pride and scrupulous attention to nurturing his self-generated image as a man of high character, and, thus,you would wrongly deprive him of even that plaudit. More than charity for the dead precludes my going that far with you in assessing the man.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 05, 2018 at 11:05:33 am

The point of citing

DUTY
HONOR
COUNTRY

is to turn away from the idea that there is a "Political Character" of an individual.

As has been currently voiced by others, "politics" may be what one does, but not what one is.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on December 07, 2018 at 02:05:11 am

I've said the same many a time. And his son was no better. It was no surprise that he praised Clinton but never a word for Reagan.

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Caroline
on December 07, 2018 at 17:59:27 pm

Pukka:

here is a link to an essay by Michael Walsh that will do your heart "good" on Poppy Bush's failures.

https://amgreatness.com/2018/12/06/george-h-w-bush-and-the-failure-of-american-foreign-policy/

BTW: I agree with Walsh. I just thought I would wait until AFTER the funeral.

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gabe
on December 07, 2018 at 19:35:05 pm

Thanks for that.

The Walsh/AG article on One World Georgie in Eastern Europe discusses just one of the myriad skeletons hiding in the archives of the GHWB presidential library.

Memory's skull looks in and grins at the wake's feast.
And I'm sad about that.

But the decency of nil nisi bonum does not constrain the living to tolerate big lies, rewrite critical history and make a giant of a mere mediocrity.

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Pukka Luftmensch

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.