It’s hard to believe now, but in 1988 George H.W. Bush was dismissed as a “wimp.” He was then in his eighth year as Vice President; had been CIA director, ambassador to the United Nations and a Congressman; had been shot down in the Pacific as a Navy pilot in World War II; and had left clubby Connecticut after the war to be an oil man in Texas. But Bush was running to succeed Ronald Reagan, and the media were intent on diminishing him.
Bush responded by defeating a strong GOP primary field and then exposing Michael Dukakis’s liberalism to win a rare third consecutive presidential term for the same party. He died Friday at age 94, having been a consequential one-term President who set an example with his integrity and sense of patriotic duty.
Bush took office at a propitious moment when the results of Ronald Reagan’s two terms were playing out to America’s benefit around the world. The U.S. economy had increased its GDP by the size of Germany in the 1980s, and America had revived its confidence and military strength. Soviet leaders had concluded they could no longer win the Cold War and Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform.
Bush’s historic contribution was to use personal diplomacy to navigate the demise of the Warsaw Pact, the reunification of Germany, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. He won the trust of Mr. Gorbachev, in part by refusing to boast about America’s victory. Reagan’s boldness and ideological conviction won the long twilight struggle, but Bush’s cautious temperament and long experience helped to negotiate a transition without firing a shot. Few empires in history have fallen in such peaceful fashion.
The 41st President also rolled back Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, famously saying, “This will not stand.” He deployed the arsenal that Reagan had acquired, and he overcame Democratic opposition at home, to lead an overwhelming military rout and set a standard for the post-Cold War order.
The blot on that victory was that he let Saddam Hussein stay in power by ending the war too soon and failing to protect the Shiites of southern Iraq as he did the Kurds in the north. Saddam survived by slaughtering the Shiite uprising, but Bush declined to help.
Twelve years later his son, George W. Bush, would invade Iraq and depose Saddam after 9/11. The conventional wisdom is that Bush 41 was the wiser leader for not having gone to Baghdad. But by ending the war too soon he allowed the weapon of mass destruction that was Saddam to remain a threat, and sooner or later he would have struck again.
Bush’s caution also caused him to support the single state of Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War as a source of stability. But the jerry-rigged country was an ethnic cauldron held together by Cold War inertia. Those tensions exploded on Bill Clinton’s watch and required American military action to protect minorities and restore stability in Bosnia and Kosovo.
The senior Bush’s record on domestic issues was disappointing, in part because he had to deal with a Democratic Congress. Bush won in 1988 by making the election a classic liberal versus conservative choice, and a dividing line then as now was taxes. “Read my lips, no new taxes,” Bush said at the GOP convention, in a self-defining political moment.
Bush had grown up in an era when compromise was more common and Members of both parties dared to socialize together. He underestimated the partisanship of Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, whose goal was to make Bush a one-term President.
Bush played into Mr. Mitchell’s hands by accepting a tax increase before Democrats had agreed to entitlement reform or spending cuts. The final deal included fleeting spending cuts while breaking his tax pledge. “I cannot break my ‘Read the Lips’ pledge,” Bush wrote in his diary in April 1989. “I would be totally destroyed if I did.” He was right.
The tax increase was all the worse because it hit amid a slowing economy already burdened by Bush’s deals with Democrats that added large new mandates and regulatory burdens on business, and the economy tipped into a mild recession. His Administration did an admirable job of cleaning up the savings-and-loan mess he inherited, and in the fourth quarter of 1992 the economy grew by 4.2%.
Bush’s Supreme Court nominations were mixed: David Souter, who left no mark beyond being a reliable liberal vote, and the principled originalist Clarence Thomas. But the tax increase and recession shattered the Reagan coalition, as Ross Perot entered the 1992 race, paving the way for Bill Clinton to win. Bush won 37% as the incumbent.
Like all Republican Presidents, Bush 41 is remembered more fondly by media and liberal elites in retrospect than he was at the time.
The left never forgave him for letting Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater dismantle Mr. Dukakis, and Bush failed to see the change in America toward deeper partisan divisions.
George H.W. Bush was by temperament a man of the middle in an age of increasing ideological polarization. He was a gentleman in a culture growing cruder by the year.
Above all he was a man of admirable private and public character who believed in government service for the good of the country and not merely for power. Those virtues made him a better President than his critics admitted.
— The Wall Street Journal