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george h.w. bush

31 october 2008

George H.W. Bush is an enigmatic American President. Highly capable (the original "resumé candidate"), elected at a key juncture in world history, and despite his lack of the "vision thing" a conspicuous achiever on the international stage, Bush was nonetheless roundly rebuffed by voters less than a year after reaching stratospheric marks in opinion polls. Sixteen years later, he seems to have receded to the status of footnote to his larger-than-life son (though footnotes, of course, have a way of re-entering the main text of history as time passes). Timothy Naftali's study for the Times Books American Presidents series presents Bush in all his contradictions. Naftali admires Bush, but scratches his biographical head at times over the trimming and re-invention that the 41st President dealt in continually throughout his public career.

Bush's reinvention extends even to his name. His patrician double-barreled middle intials disappeared for much of his public life so that he could be plain George Bush. When George W. Bush began to have national ambitions, his father reinstated the "H.W." to leave the plain moniker free for the son. Poor George, as Ann Richards might say: he didn't even get to keep his own name after he left office.

Richards also said that Bush was "born with a silver foot in his mouth," but Naftali doesn't dwell on 41's choppy syntax. Indeed, Bush's verbal difficulties are hardly serious flaws when set against his sterling record. A battle-tried Navy pilot in World War II, a skilled oil baron, a tireless water-carrier for the emerging Texas Republican Party in the 1960s, Bush was rewarded by the Nixon and Ford administrations with a series of resumé-building appointments that he did credit to: envoy to the U.N. and to China, national party chairman, director of Central Intelligence. His route to the Presidency was similar to that of William Taft or Herbert Hoover, as he parlayed success in a number of high administrative jobs into national prominence at the polls.

But who was he, exactly? In 1964, running for the U.S. Senate, he embraced Goldwater Republicanism and its nascent "southern strategy" of seizing the segregationist wing of the old Democratic Party away from LBJ and his civil-rights allies. In Congress 1967-71, Bush swung to the Rockefeller side of his party, liberal on social issues, consensus-building on the Great Society and its programs. As a peripatetic Presidential candidate in the late 1970s and the 1980 campaign, he seemed to trim his sails to the prevailing wind; as so often, the electorate preferred Ronald Reagan, whose rudder was firmly lashed to a single course. Tapped as Reagan's running mate, Bush spent eight uncritical years supporting the Gipper. He won the 1988 nomination by embracing Reagan's anti-tax rhetoric, but quickly had to abjure it once in office. Bush also proved a moderate pragmatist in the international arena, where Reagan had been a strident (if often successful) idealist.

This all-over-the-mapness helps explain why 41, despite watching the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union (and, Naftali argues, making salient diplomatic contributions to both processes), despite signing widely-heralded legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act, despite having the guts to agree to a budget-mending tax increase, despite unequivocally winning a war, was widely seen in his heyday as a "wimp." When set against the terrier-like Ross Perot and the sunny, sax-blowing Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election, Bush suffered a repudiation along the lines of, well, Taft 1912 or Hoover 1932.

Yet ultimately George H.W. Bush reminds one not so much of those primeval Old-Guard Republicans as he reminds one of a much nearer analogue, Jimmy Carter. Both men forged strong ties to Arab states and were seen as fair brokers in the Middle East. Both reacted to tough economic times with realism and nuance. Both were centrists who faced disdain from the dominant wing of their parties. Both, in the worried tones of Dana Carvey as the SNL incarnation of Bush, turned out to be "one-termers." But both parties probably now wish they'd embraced these moderate leaders more strenuously than they did.

Naftali, Timothy. George H.W. Bush. New York: Times Books, 2007.