Is It Possible to Separate George H.W. Bush’s GOP From Trump’s?Roundup
tags: GOP, George HW Bush, Trump
Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton.
Related Link How George H. W. Bush Is Being Remembered
At his death, George Herbert Walker Bush is suffering the unkind fate of being celebrated as an anti-Trump. A man of Yankee-style dignity and prudence, who at his core believed himself to be a patriotic public servant, Bush would have been honored to have his career measured according to a very different, wholly honorable standard, that of a former president like Dwight Eisenhower, perhaps, or even of his own father, Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, who played a role in censuring Senator Joseph McCarthy. Not that Bush ever boasted to meet their standard — that would have been unseemly — but even a likening would have been a proud marker of a life well-lived. Instead, like John McCain before him, Bush stands as an exemplary statesman compared to the most vicious, arrogant, cowardly, clueless and corrupt political figure in contemporary American life, and possibly in all of American history. Bush is not allowed to stand in punditry among history’s nobles; he is diminished by being declared superior to scum.
More thoughtful commentators have tried to assess a career that was riddled with contradictions. As president, Bush proposed building a “kinder, gentler America”; helped oversee the peaceful conclusion to the Cold War and signed the broadest arms reduction treaty in 20 years; backed important social and civil rights legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act; signed the Clean Air Act; stood up to the National Rifle Association and approved a temporary ban on the importation of semi-automatic weapons; and when push came to shove, he broke his “read-my-lips” campaign promise and approved a needed tax increase.
He also shamelessly reversed himself on what he once derided as Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo economics” but adopted out of political expediency; repudiated his past support for family planning and women’s reproductive rights after being a champion of Planned Parenthood; rode to the White House thanks to a racist, demagogic campaign plotted by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes; denounced his Democratic opponent, the upright Michael Dukakis, McCarthy-like, as a coddler of flag-burners and “a card-carrying member of the ACLU”; cynically nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court with the ridiculous claim that he was the best qualified person for the job; vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 as “quota” bill; and advanced the discriminatory and harshly punitive federal war on drugs.
Some pundits claim to have detected a pattern: Bush, they say, was a brass-knuckled dirty fighter on the campaign trail who said and did whatever he needed to in order to win office, but who then governed like a gentlemanly statesman. But while there is some truth in this, it needs saying that Bush’s shifting campaign positions, dating back at least to his vice-presidential race in 1980, earned him dismissive contempt from the national media as well as the Reaganite right. Reagan himself gibed, “He just melts under pressure”; his wife Nancy reportedly made fun in private of Bush’s speaking style and called him “Whiny”; and when he ran for president in 1988, Bush had to overcome what Newsweek called, in one cover story, “The Wimp Factor.” In his politics as in his approach to foreign policy, Bush was a realist, but in his case, political realism could often project hollow weakness instead of tough-minded strength.
Bush’s deeper contradictions had to do with his tortured place in American political history, and in particular the history of the Republican Party. He would always remain tethered to the Northeast and to his father’s moderate, Eisenhower-style “modern” Republicanism, symbolized by his family’s estate, which he called his “windward anchor,” in Kennebunkport, Maine. After his unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1970, his political career centered in Washington, not in Texas. Even as he remade himself amid the Houston oilmen — which had required, among other things, opposing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 — his closest ties remained with establishment political circles, especially in foreign policy, reflected in his appointments as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, director of the C.I.A., and U.S. envoy to China. ...