The presidency of George H.W. Bush is enjoying a nostalgic portrayal following the death of “41” on November 30. His is being called “the most successful one term presidency in history,” and that description may well endure given the obvious fact that, by definition, one term presidencies have invariably ended in rejection by voters.
The nostalgia for Bush is certainly enhanced by the stark contrast between his Brahmin, New England absence of braggadocio and the crude narcissism of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Bush’s self-confidence in the role of statesman was doubtless influenced by his having been surrounded by powerful politicians — his father was a U.S. senator from Connecticut — his entire life. A member of Congress once described to me Bush’s comment to Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, with whom he had served in the House, as he settled into his chair in the Oval Office. “Danny!” Bush 41 reportedly exclaimed, “Can you believe I’m the [expletive deleted] president of the United States?”
Bush had a deep appreciation for the role Congress played in the policymaking process although his service in the House was limited to just two terms. Despite subsequently holding a litany of high offices — CIA director, ambassador to China and to the United Nations, Vice President — Bush may well have shared a sentiment I have heard from many whom moved on from the South wing of the Capitol: no job was more fun than being a member of the House.
Indeed, even as president, Bush would use his lifetime privileges in the House gym to play vigorous games of paddle ball (I think it was) with current members, understanding as some of his successors did not the enormous value of developing and nurturing personal ties with those you will need to implement your legislative agenda. Of course, with both houses of Congress in Democratic hands during his presidency (the Senate had been in Republican control for three quarters of the Reagan years), one might say Bush had little option but to find ways to cooperate with Democrats, but Bush’s efforts paid off when he needed congressional support for the war against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait or for the urgent tax increase that may well have cost him his presidency.
Still, it is important not to let the testimonials accumulate without maintaining a critical eye on Bush’s overall record. As unpretentious as his demeanor could be, his legacy will have to account for some decisions that historians cannot help but view critically. He gained the presidency, many believe, thanks to a race-tinged commercial that, using grainy footage and menacing music, linked Democratic nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis to Willie Horton, an African American murderer who had committed horrific crimes while on a weekend furlough from prison allowed by Massachusetts law. Politics, and campaigns, can certainly be ugly; this commercial, however, is often credited as being among the nastiest — and most effective.
Bush also committed a serious error by making a totally incompetent Dan Quayle his running mate. I recall seeing the headline announcing the selection and wondering, “Who on earth could that? The only Quayle I know is Dan, and no one would ever put him in line to the presidency!” Quayle would be the source of multiple embarrassments during the Bush years, as well as countless prayers offered up for the president’s continued good health.
More consequentially, Bush appointed the ultra-conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in what many viewed as a gratuitous act to replace Thurgood Marshall with another African-American justice. The impact of that 1991 appointment continues to have devastating implications more than a quarter century later. Bush would not be the first president to appoint a justice whose rulings were at odds with the ideology of the man who appointed him, but Thomas’ reactionary views were well known at the time of his controversial appointment and even more contentious confirmation, which did not move Bush to withdraw the selection despite a massive public outcry.
Neither historians, the press or the public should attempt to define a person’s legacy based on a few incidents, even if criticism is merited, and certainly that is the case with one whose service to the country lasted nearly three quarters of a century. Bush is being remembered rightly as one who displayed political courage and personal generosity and bipartisan friendship. He may even deserve that title as the best one-term president in history.