As the years pass, we edit and compress our memories of presidents and other national figures until only a few salient impressions endure. Most of what we once knew recedes into our cerebral hard disk. That may be especially true for one-term presidents, often remembered more for what turned them out of office than for what got them there.
Would this apply to the one-term president who died Friday, George H.W. Bush? His name was attached to some of the nation’s top positions for more than two decades even before his namesake son won the White House twice.
This weekend’s outpouring of nostalgia, affection and grief for “George the First” surely makes the case for his significance.
But even with a public figure this durable, many facets of the story fade with time. That’s a pity, because the greater meaning of anyone’s life is often contained in the things others forget.
Take the example of Bush’s decision, at age 18, to forgo college and join the Navy in the midst of World War II. (The White House got this wrong in their official statement, saying he had gone to war only after Yale.) Or the way he moved to Texas to start his business career, far from his well-established clan in New England.
Most Americans have long forgotten that Bush first ran for president way back in 1980 and actually won the Iowa caucuses over a field of better-known current and former officeholders — including Ronald Reagan. That was the first of many times Bush would confound the experts, either by exceeding expectations or at times by falling woefully short. It sometimes seemed he did better when expected to lose and worse when expected to win.
Back in 1980, Bush was full of confidence about his résumé and regional power bases in Texas and the Northeast. His TV ads spoke of “a president we won’t have to train.” That was a shot at the incumbent of the time, Democrat Jimmy Carter, often seen as at sea in the White House, lacking Washington experience and much of a political résumé in general. (The ads were also a bank shot at Reagan, who was still thought of as an actor, primarily, and a foreign policy naif in particular).
Bush had the training. He had the senator father, the Ivy League pedigree and the war hero story — not to mention years in politics. He had made a quixotic bid for the Senate in 1964 and then been elected to the House in 1966, one of just two Republicans in the chamber’s Texas delegation. Nonetheless, as a freshman, he got a coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee, a personal favor that Chairman Wilbur Mills did for an old friend (who happened to be Bush’s father).
Bush had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but once in Congress, he voted for a successor bill in 1968 that was deeply unpopular in his Houston district. In his two House terms, he had also voted to support Planned Parenthood and shown at least a passing interest in the nascent environmental movement.
President Richard Nixon saw potential in Bush and encouraged him to run for the Senate in 1970 (against a Democrat named Lloyd Bentsen). It was a bit of a long shot, and Bush lost. But Nixon named him ambassador to the United Nations in 1971, giving him his first exposure on the world stage.
Two years later, with tensions rising over Nixon’s Watergate scandals, Bush was installed as chairman of the Republican National Committee. He would serve in that job for two years, performing dutifully for the party, including making a formal call for Nixon to resign, shortly before Nixon did so in August 1974.
Shortly thereafter, President Gerald R. Ford sent Bush off to be the U.S. envoy to China. (There was no ambassador to China because the U.S. still had not formally recognized the Communist regime in Beijing.) Fourteen months later, Ford brought Bush home to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Bush held the CIA job for just a year but is often credited with restoring morale at the agency after Senate hearings had exposed many of its clandestine operations around the world. Today, the CIA headquarters campus is named the George Bush Center for Intelligence.
Largely unscathed by his time working for Nixon and running the CIA, Bush would again show a talent for skirting scandal later on, in his waning years as vice president. But first, we need to go back to 1980.
Carter’s re-election year of 1980 attracted a swarm of serious Republican challengers, including Reagan and Bush and Sens. Howard Baker and Bob Dole and a former Democratic governor of Texas named John Connally, who had served in Nixon’s Cabinet and switched parties.
But it was Bush who broke out in Iowa. Newsweek‘s cover showed him jogging alone on a rugged country road. But the front-runner stumbled in New Hampshire, where Reagan took him down in a TV debate. Bush tried to limit the event to a one-on-one, but Reagan insisted on bringing in the other rivals. Reagan, dramatic as ever, prevailed with a memorable line: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”
After that, it was scarcely a contest, but Bush hung around until May. His campaign manager, a Houstonian named James A. Baker III, persuaded him to quit the race. Baker reasoned that having Bush bow out gracefully improved his chances of becoming Reagan’s running mate. Indeed, the ticket emerged at the convention in Detroit (after a flurry of interest in a Reagan-Ford ticket). The Reagan-Bush brand went on to win Electoral College landslides in 1980 and 1984.
Bush generated relatively little controversy in the No. 2 role, although as a former oil company executive, he was vulnerable to resentment over historically high gasoline prices. Some conservatives wanted the aging Reagan to install a more ideological partisan as his wingman in a second term, but Bush and Baker managed to beat back that threat.
In Reagan’s second term, his administration was exposed for selling arms to Iran in exchange for hostages (and using the profits to illegally fund anti-communist insurgents in Central America). Investigators looked for evidence of Bush’s involvement in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair. But Bush said he was “out of the loop” on that one, and no one ever proved otherwise.
The next big hurdle was winning the GOP nomination to be Reagan’s successor. Suddenly, Bush found himself besieged. Newsweek‘s cover now showed him boating with the headline “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor’.” Was Bush too preppy to be president? Too lightweight and accommodating to wear Reagan’s mantle?
In 1988, Bush got no love in previously friendly precincts of Iowa, unhappy about a farm recession. In 1988, the caucuses preferred Kansan Bob Dole, with Bush finishing third and on the brink of extinction. Then Bush pulled his biggest upset, turning the tables on Dole in New Hampshire, winning big by putting taxes in the spotlight and with the help of Republican Gov. John Sununu (whom Bush would make chief of staff in the White House).
In July 1988, Bush was struggling in the polls. Gallup had him losing to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis by 17 points after a Democratic convention devoted largely to mocking Bush (“Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth”). But after a successful GOP convention in New Orleans (and a memorable speech that included a no-new-taxes pledge), Bush turned things around. He ran a campaign of appeal to ordinary Americans, eating pork rinds and visiting a flag factory, while various operatives put damaging attack ads on TV and spread rumors about Dukakis’ mental health.
Bush again defied predictions by holding his own in the TV debates in the fall and then sweeping to victory in 40 states in November, winning a majority of the popular vote.
His inaugural address was a model of moderation and grace. He acknowledged Reagan on the dais but clearly pivoted away from Reaganism, speaking of a “kinder” and “gentler” approach, as he had in New Orleans. He stretched out a hand of cooperation, literally gesturing at the Democratic leaders (who had majorities in both House and Senate).
As president, of course, Bush is remembered for managing the global adjustment as the Soviet Union collapsed and the old Communist bloc ceased to exist. He has been praised for forming a coalition in the Persian Gulf War that lifted Iraq’s occupation of neighboring Kuwait in early 1991. The short, successful war lifted Bush to a peak of 89 percent approval in the Gallup Poll and seemingly made him a shoo-in for re-election.
He is also remembered for a budget deal in the summer of 1990 that raised some taxes, restrained some spending and helped to reduce the federal deficit over the next decade. This capitulation to higher taxes would cost him dearly among conservatives in 1992.
But Bush’s first big initiative as president was actually a tax cut. He tried hard in 1989 to lower taxes on capital gains (the profits on sale of stocks and bonds and other invested assets). The bill passed with bipartisan support in the House but fell short in the Senate, where it was opposed by Bush’s old Texas nemesis, Lloyd Bensten.
Bush also found the waters choppy when presented with two vacancies on the Supreme Court. His choice of New Hampshire’s David Souter (recommended by Sununu) sailed through but disappointed conservatives, who rightly suspected Souter might move to the left once confirmed. The other pick was Clarence Thomas, a steadfast conservative who remains on the court today, the longest-serving of the current nine justices. Thomas was barely confirmed after a bruising battle over former aide Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment.
And finally, Bush failed to muster a convincing response to public dissatisfaction over the economy. A short recession in late 1991 and early 1992 was more severe in some locales, including Bush’s native Northeast. His administration’s reluctance to take this downturn more seriously made Bush appear out of touch.
The Democrats that year nominated Bill Clinton, then 46. The age gap between the two major party nominees has been the widest since the 1850s, and Clinton’s empathetic charm was on full display in the debates.
Bush was also weakened throughout the year by crossfire from two other challengers. Former Reagan speechwriter Pat Buchanan ran against Bush and nearly won the first primary in New Hampshire (the bellwether state for Bush’s fortunes). Billionaire businessman H. Ross Perot mounted a third-party bid that would eventually get 19 percent of the November vote, running against government debt and trade deals. He managed to reduce the vote for the two major parties enough so that Clinton could win with just 43 percent of the vote (Dukakis had received 45.6 percent four years earlier).
Bush, whose re-election had appeared unstoppable just a year earlier, dropped below 38 percent and carried only 18 states — losing the Electoral College 370-168.
Since then, Bush has burnished his legacy largely by being himself. He spent little time in Washington, preferring the family retreat in Maine, his presidential library at Texas A&M University or his home in Houston, making occasional trips to the ballpark. On his birthday, he sometimes belied his age by skydiving.
In the last 15 years, he carried out several diplomatic and charitable missions in a remarkably friendly partnership with Bill Clinton.
His sons carried on the candidate tradition in Texas and Florida, then on the national stage. He played a modest role in son George’s national campaigns and advised him from time to time. Many key advisers from the first Bush White House returned to similar or more prominent roles in the second — especially in national security.
It is difficult for one-term presidents to claim greatness, but some of their images and memories have had staying power. As the world of the 21st century unfolds, the credentials and governing ideas and personal style of the first President Bush may seem remote. They may serve as a touchstone of remembrance only. Or they may someday provide a template for emulation by those who wish to recapture something of value from the past.