The 41st president put self-interest over principle time and time again.
By DAVID GREENBERG
George H.W. Bush has died and our national media have begun the familiar rituals of presidential passings: round-the-clock pieties on cable news, fond tributes from associates, the inevitable softening of the rough edges. This isn’t surprising. There’s ancient wisdom in the Latin aphorism de mortuis nil nisi bonum (speak nothing but good of the dead). The urge to prettify a politician’s legacy upon his demise is understandable and in some ways reflects our finer selves. Bush’s family, friends and admirers deserve comfort in their grief.
But when it comes to presidents and historical actors of consequence, we also need critical dissent. When writing my first book, Nixon’s Shadow, about that president’s endlessly protean image, I found myself grateful that at the time of his funeral—a whitewash that minimized his constitutional crimes—sober, serious historians like David Halberstam and Garry Wills stood up to provide corrective reminders. Had they not done so, future readers might have believed that Nixon’s attempted comeback had succeeded when in fact it did not. Respect for the dead must coexist with respect for the historical record.
In the case of Bush, this balancing act means acknowledging not only his positive qualities and achievements—as so many news outlets have already copiously done—but also what may have been his defining political hallmark: his cynicism. From his opportunistic criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to his 1980 election-season embrace of supply-side economics and anti-abortion politics, to his last act as president—pardoning many of the Iran-Contra crew in order to protect himself—there was a recurring tendency to place short-term gain above long-standing values.
This isn’t to say Bush lacked principles. As a young man, he volunteered to fight in World War II; as an old man, he undertook important post-presidential disaster-relief efforts. These and other acts showed courage and class. At times—in working with Democrats on clean-air legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 1990 deal to tame the debilitating Reagan-era budget deficits—he acted humanely and even nobly. But in this historian’s reckoning, self-interest prevailed too often over principle. My friend the historian Tim Naftali has called Bush the most underrated president of our times. I would say that what we’re now seeing proves the opposite: Bush was the most overrated president since Dwight Eisenhower, and possibly of all time.
The son of Prescott Bush, a wealthy investment banker and moderate Republican senator from Connecticut, George H.W. Bush entered politics at a moment when the GOP’s center of ideological gravity was beginning to move rightward. His career bore the marks of his struggle to square his patrimony of social liberalism and responsible statesmanship with the new demand from Republican voters for a more zealous and populistic conservatism. By launching his career not in New England but in his adopted state of Texas, where he had moved to make his fortune in oil, Bush would find himself continually pressed to sacrifice his Yankee principles of noblesse oblige and social moderation. Most famously, he did this in 1964, when running for Senate amid the great civil rights struggle. Regarded by many Texas conservatives as an Eastern carpetbagger, Bush denounced the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination in schools, employment and public accommodations. At other times, as with his congressional vote in 1968 for a fair-housing bill, he incurred his constituents’ wrath. Too often though, the former choice, not the latter, served as Bush’s template in making decisions.
The willingness to put aside conviction for political opportunity resurfaced in 1980 when Bush, after running a surprisingly strong second in the 1980 Republican presidential primaries to Ronald Reagan, recanted his well-known denunciation of supply-side economics as “voodoo economics” and his long-standing pro-choice politics in order to be chosen as Reagan’s running mate. Throughout his career, Bush often said that while he might take the low road in campaigning, he hewed to his ideals while governing. But here he had done the opposite: trumpeting his true views while seeking the nomination, then abandoning them once in office. With Bush’s acquiescence to Reagan’s more conservative politics, the last hope for a restoration of Rockefeller Republicanism perished. Never again would the party boast a major national leader who defended reproductive rights or questioned the merits of supply-side economics.
During his own bid for the presidency eight years later, Bush remained under parole from the right. To placate his party’s die-hards that year, he chose as vice president Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, who was anti-abortion, hawkish and opposed to new civil rights measures. (I have never seen Bush admit this, but I’ve always thought that the handsome, affable, preppy and somewhat happy-go-lucky Quayle reminded the elder Bush, consciously or unconsciously, of his own first-born son.) Quayle’s unreadiness for the presidency soon became evident, and, much like John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate two decades later, it was judged to be a shortsighted, irresponsible move
An even more fateful bid to satisfy conservative skeptics that summer was Bush’s pledge at the GOP convention: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Fighting what Newsweek billed as the “wimp factor,” Bush felt pressured to demonstrate his Reagan-like machismo with what the pundits were calling a Clint Eastwood moment. The ironclad vow not to raise tax rates shored up support from the right, but in a time of skyrocketing deficits, it hamstrung the president after he took office. Eventually, in 1990, Democrats, who controlled the House and Senate, forced Bush to accept some new taxes as part of a massive budget compromise. The administration called them “revenue enhancements.” In his reelection campaign in 1992, Bush would renounce not the original pledge but his violation of it as his worst mistake.
Many of the encomiums published today dwell on the president’s grace and magnanimity, but his campaigns showed a less attractive side of his personality. Bush’s 1988 presidential bid has been widely deemed the ugliest in modern times. Under the tutelage of hardballers Roger Ailes, James Baker and Lee Atwater, Bush impugned the Americanism of his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, and pandered to prejudice in making hay of Dukakis’ honorable decision to accept a Massachusetts Supreme Court judgment that deemed mandatory pledge-of-allegiance recitals in public schools to be unconstitutional. “What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?” Bush taunted. Then came the Willie Horton ads that hyped the scare-story of an African-American criminal, released on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, who raped a woman and assaulted her husband. Never mind that Reagan, as governor of California, had signed a similar furlough bill.
Bush’s 1992 campaign against Bill Clinton was almost as scurrilous. The sitting president trashed his opponent for protesting the Vietnam War while at graduate school in England and made unwholesome insinuations about Clinton’s motives for visiting Moscow while backpacking. Clinton shot back in a debate: “When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people’s patriotism, he was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism.”
In between, Bush continued to put politics ahead of the national good in many of his appointments. Most notably, in 1991, when Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, announced his retirement, Bush could have honored his legacy by naming a respected African-American judge or legal scholar such as Amalya Kearse or Leon Higginbotham. But he selected a staunch conservative in Clarence Thomas—served up with the implausible assertion that he was the most qualified person for the job. Given that Bush had appointed David Souter to the court, expecting him to name a more moderate black justice is hardly unreasonable.
In foreign policy, Bush has generally been given higher marks, and in some cases fairly so—particularly for his management of European relations at the start of the post-Cold War era. But he also made terrible mistakes, which were likewise rooted in cynicism. As Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait, Bush sent the Iraqi strongman clear signals, through the American ambassador, that the United States had no interest in intra-Arab disputes—the exact opposite position of the one he took very shortly thereafter, in which he drew a “line in the sand.” Bush commendably built international support for a military campaign against Saddam, but by leaving the dictator in power at the war’s end, he fobbed off the problem onto his successors. By 1998, in violation of the cease-fire agreement, Saddam was refusing to let international weapons inspectors carry out their job, making it impossible to know if he would resume a nuclear weapons program. One need not support George W. Bush’s rash decision to invade the country to concede that he was addressing a problem that his father had left—in the words of Dick Cheney, a top official in both men’s administrations—unfinished.
As distressing as giving Saddam a new lease on power was Bush’s treatment of the Shiite and Kurdish minorities who had suffered under his rule. Early in 1991, Bush had actively encouraged Shiites in Iraq’s south and Kurds in the north to rise up and depose Saddam, but after the successful expulsion of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, Bush concluded he didn’t want to see the country fractured. He declined to provide more than humanitarian aid, and tens of thousands of both groups were slaughtered or dispossessed. A similar embrace of realpolitik shaped his tepid response to the Chinese government’s massacre of student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Perhaps the worst act of Bush’s career came at the end of his presidency when he pardoned a bevy of Iran-Contra defendants—including Caspar Weinberger, Robert MacFarlane and Elliott Abrams—to protect himself from further investigation. As vice president, Bush had been present at key meetings about the arms-for-hostages deal that would become the Reagan administration’s greatest scandal, but he had never been fully candid about his support for the policy, insisting disingenuously that he had been “out of the loop.” Late in Bush’s presidency, special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh had learned of diaries that Bush had kept, which he hoped to introduce as evidence at Weinberger’s upcoming trial. Bush’s pardons thus shielded himself from any additional investigation. Walsh fumed that “the Iran-Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.”
Needless to say, the above litany will inevitably come across to some as one-sided. In no way is it meant to gainsay Bush’s achievements in office or afterward or diminish his attractive personal qualities. It’s to note that over many decades Bush often surrendered to instincts of political self-promotion and self-preservation, including acceding to the demands of an increasingly right-wing conservative movement whose basic tenets he didn’t necessarily share.
Despite knowing better, George H.W. Bush often slunk aside to create space in the Republican Party for right-wing ideologues and practitioners of the politics of personal destruction. It shouldn’t surprise us to see that others—made of far more malignant stuff than he—have now taken over that space.