The Preeminence of Prudence

Washington forgives many things, from Oval Office indiscretions to executive abuses. But neither laughter nor defeat makes the pardonable cut, and George H.W. Bush has endured both, in each case for precisely the quality that most commends him: prudence. It has consequently taken more than two decades since his departure from the White House in 1993, and perhaps the lack of that quality in some of the intervening period, for history to begin to appreciate the elder Bush. 41, the new book by his son and successor George W. Bush, will help.

This is not an objective work of biography and is not supposed to be. Bush 43 disclaims any such intent from the beginning. It arose when David McCullough’s daughter remarked how much her father, in writing his John Adams opus, regretted not having a biographical treatment of him by his son John Quincy.

There is not a deeply rooted “presidential” perspective in this book. It is less 43’s account of 41, which might have had its value, than a son’s tribute to his father, which certainly has its virtues. It is alternately touching and charming. Bush 41 comes off mostly as thoroughly decent—the kind of Congressman who votes for the Fair Housing Act while representing a district that was 90 percent white in 1968 Texas, and the kind of 89-year-old elder statesman who shaves his head in solidarity when he discovers the two-year-old daughter of a Secret Service agent is undergoing chemotherapy.

The word for this is class. Humility ennobles it. Consider, for example, “my father’s quiet faith,” expressed in moments of quiet prayer:

He was a religious man, but he was not comfortable espousing his faith in the public square. I was less restrained. At a Republican presidential debate in late 1999, the moderator asked the candidates which philosopher we most identified with. I said, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” It was not a scripted answer; I just blurted out the truth. Dad called shortly after the debate, as he often did. “Good job, son,” he said. We discussed some of the key moments. Then he said, “I don’t think that answer on Jesus will hurt you too much.”

But there is something more to Bush 41, and it is a political virtue that has vanished from the landscape: the quality of judgment leavened by experience—prudence.  Dana Carvey lampooned him for it on Saturday Night Live (Bush—again, class—reacted by inviting Carvey to the White House to entertain his dejected staff after his 1992 defeat.)

Prudence is a repeated theme of this narrative, even if the author does not specifically identify it. Bush was plenty tough on communism but understood the need to allow the dissolution of the Soviet Union on terms with which the Soviet regime could cope without detonating. As the Berlin Wall fell, he declined triumphalism:

Dad faced enormous pressure to celebrate. Democrats in Congress urged him to go to Berlin. Journalists, eager for a dramatic story, demanded to know why he wasn’t showing more emotion. . . . [But] he knew the best way to achieve results was to think about the situation from the other person’s perspective. Freedom had a better chance to succeed in Central and Eastern Europe if he did not provoke the Soviets to intervene in the budding revolutions.

Similarly, he declined to pursue the Gulf War to Baghdad once the stated mission of expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was achieved. “Congress and the Coalition had signed on to liberate Kuwait. That was the mission. It was achieved. It was time to bring the troops home.” Saddam’s brutal repression of rebels ensued, leading to pressure on Bush to intervene. “Dad’s response has always been that he had no mandate from Congress or from our international partners to intervene militarily.” A President restraining himself because he wields power but lacks authority: Imagine!

Bush 41 was similarly denounced for his cautious response to the death throes of the Soviet Union, including his suggestion—ridiculed as “Chicken Kiev”—that Ukraine transition gradually to democracy, another prudent and prophetic act. So was the 1990 budget deal that, as much as any later policy, deserves credit for the decade’s surpluses.

Those who admire this quality of prudence will naturally turn to Bush’s biography to ask how it might be cultivated. One suggestion is its inseparability from character. Bush repeatedly rejects the privilege available to him. He joined the Navy out of high school against his father’s wishes. He handled the downing of his plane over the Pacific with consummate skill, then eluded capture by the Japanese by paddling furiously against the ocean currents in a life raft. We get a clear sense of Bush’s private character in his reaction to the deaths of two of his crew mates:

He stayed in touch with both of their families for decades. When he was elected President more than forty years after the crash, he invited [their] sisters for a private visit in the White House. During [an] interview with Jenna [Bush] on his ninetieth birthday, almost seventy years after the shoot-down, she asked whether he still thought about his crewmates.

“I think about them all the time,” he said.

He thought relentlessly, too, about another wrenching loss: that of his three-year-old daughter Robin to leukemia. Some of her last words to her father—“I love you more than tongue can tell”—reappear in Bush 41’s words to his son upon the start of the Iraq war in 2003.

After World War II, Bush rejected offers to exploit his parents’ Wall Street connections to obtain a plum position, instead moving his young family—including the plucky Barbara Pierce Bush (“Well I didn’t marry you, did I?” she replies when Prescott Bush jokingly inquires whether he gave her permission to smoke)—to West Texas for a humble start as an equipment clerk in the oil business.

He reacted to adversity—such as his defeats for the Senate in 1964 and 1970—with determination and grace. Offered his choice of ambassadorships in the Ford administration, Bush chose an outpost that did not then carry that title: American representative to China. “Like West Texas, China represented the frontier. . . .” In October 1992, with defeat looming, he wrote in his diary, “If we should lose, there’s great happiness over the horizon—but it will be a very painful process—not for losing but for letting people down.”

The prudence Bush displayed in office reflects the intersection of this character with a diversity of experience stretching from the West Texas oil fields to Congress to the United Nations and CIA. Neither experience nor character, one suspects from this narrative, could alone have forged Bush’s prudence.

There are limits to this volume, as there must be in a son’s paean to his father. Bush 41 does not make any mistakes in this telling. (Former Senator John Tower, for example—Bush’s ill-fated nominee for Defense Secretary—was the victim of “innuendo,” which glosses over legitimate questions about his temperament.) Bush 43’s occasional digressions to talk about his own policies—such as his pages-long apologia for his Gulf war while talking about Bush 41’s—often feel often misplaced and sometimes feel ill-suited to his father’s example.

There are limits, too, to prudence even as Bush 41 practiced it. It generally takes the form of caution, which is not the whole of what prudence means. Indeed, the international diplomacy of personal friendships that Bush 43 so praises seems singularly incautious, and it may have impeded Bush 41’s capacity to give a sense of definition to the Cold War’s denouement. To consider that moment “from the other person’s perspective”—which is to say Gorbachev’s—is to make the unshackling of peoples into a personal encounter between persons. The rapport of world leaders can seem to outshine the aspirations of the people they govern.

Still, the years since, including those over which the author of this book presided, serve as a reminder that caution is not the worst of political sins. Nor is defeat the worst of political fates. George H.W. Bush has made the most of both. History will appreciate him for it, and historians will appreciate 41 for contributing to their understanding of the man.