Bush 41: An underrated president?
“Some presidential reputations are like great red wines: They get better with time,” said Tim Naftali in Slate.com. That’s truer of George H.W. Bush than of any modern president. A one-termer whom the American people soundly rejected in 1992, Bush was saddled with an image as a hapless, awkward, and out-of-touch patrician. “How wrong that impression was.” While he disdained political theater and was uniquely unsuited to self-promotion, during critical times Bush was “not just good at his job—he was great at it.” He brought “the perfect mix of pragmatism, realism, and good sense to three huge challenges”: the fall of the Soviet Empire, the collapse of Reaganomics, and organizing a truly international coalition to beat back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Successfully navigating the end of the Cold War is where Bush made his “historic contribution,” said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. His deep foreign-policy experience and skillful diplomacy with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were key to negotiating a peaceful transition. That period cemented his legacy as a “consequential one-term president who set an example with his integrity and sense of patriotic duty.”
In evaluating Bush, it’s impossible not to be reminded of how different he was from the White House’s current occupant, said The New York Times in an editorial. In temperament and character, Bush and Donald Trump have “almost nothing in common: the one gracious and modest, the other rude and vain; the one prudent, the other brash; the one steady, the other unmoored.” Imagine a Republican president today signing the Clean Air Act, as Bush did, or being “courageous” enough to reverse his “no new taxes” pledge when deficits rose and the country’s fiscal health demanded it. Bush was a modest, decent man who lived a life of service, said Jonah Goldberg in National Review. He was not “a transformative president” like Ronald Reagan, but a “steward of stability” who encouraged “Americans to be their best selves in service to each other.”
Canonizing Bush as the anti-Trump “requires selective vision,” said Jeet Heer in The New Republic. In many ways Bush was a “forerunner” of Trump and today’s GOP. Let’s not forget Bush’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his “wretched record” on providing research funding during the AIDS crisis (he said “behavioral change” was the best way to fight it), or his self-serving pardoning of the Iran-Contra defendants. Let’s all not forget that he stuck with Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas despite credible allegations of sexual harassment. (Brett Kavanaugh, anyone?) And then there was Willie Horton, said Will Bunch in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Bush’s most shameful legacy was the way he unleashed “the politics of personal destruction” in his 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis, using menacing photos of a black murderer to frighten white voters. That “openly racist campaign” paved the way for the GOP’s scorched-earth politicking and gives the lie to the myth of Bush as a paragon of civility.
Like all leaders and indeed all human beings, Bush was a complex character, said Yascha Mounk in Slate.com. Yet his conservative admirers and liberal detractors have sought to portray him in “monochrome”—as a war hero of unmatched virtue and honor or as “an old, white male patrician who enjoyed race-baiting and seeing gay men die of AIDS.” Instead of “struggling to make sense of this multifaceted legacy,” too many partisan commentators “immediately pressed his death into the service of our relentless culture war.” Bush, and our national discourse, deserve better. ■