Rarely have six words meant so much, and so many different things, to so many.
They rang out in the Superdome in New Orleans in August 1988 as the vice president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, accepted the Republican nomination for president:
“Read my lips: no new taxes.”
And the crowd, as they say, went wild. A roar had been building, even in that vast and airy stadium, as Bush built up to his payoff line:
“My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no. And they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say, to them, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’ “
There were other memorable moments in that address, drafted by a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan named Peggy Noonan. The soon-to-be-famous “thousand points of light” were mentioned, along with a reference to a “kinder and gentler nation.” Both would follow George H.W. Bush for the rest of his life.
But it was the “read my lips” quip that ignited the convention and caught the attention of the media. Tough-guy talk was not Bush’s usual métier. It was far more associated with Reagan, the movie actor, who, as a politician, borrowed from film scripts from time to time. A few years earlier, Reagan had delighted his fans by quoting from a Clint Eastwood movie, where a cop with a very large gun taunted a criminal crawling toward a weapon nearby:
“Go ahead,” said Dirty Harry. “Make my day.”
So when Reagan was confronting Democrats and other “tax increasers” in Congress, he lifted that line to dramatize his veto threat.
Where the phrase came from
“Read my lips” sounded like a movie, but it wasn’t from one of Clint’s. William Safire researched the phrase for his column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Safire was a lexicographer as well as a political columnist and former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.
He found the first widely public use of the phrase in a song title in 1957 (by Joe Greene) and later in a 1978 album title (by singer Tim Curry) and several song titles in the 1980s. It then migrated into the world of sports and sports clichés, from which it was a short leap to political speech.
A Reagan aide used it in 1981 about the release of American hostages held by Iran, and even by Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee used it in congressional questioning.
Safire concluded, the phrase simply meant “Listen closely” or “Get this straight.”
What was important, though, was that it sounded tough. Bush, all too often, did not. In fact, his campaign had suffered from a perception problem regarding his virility.
Newsweek had pictured the former World War II fighter pilot and college baseball player on a boat on its cover with the headline, “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’ ” That’s something the editor of that article now says he was wrong about, but in the 1988 campaign, it was a narrative that stuck — and Bush’s principal task of his New Orleans convention speech was to dispel that image tout suite.
It helped … then probably hurt
“Read my lips” succeeded, probably beyond their fondest dreams. Polls showed that after the convention, Bush had a lead over Democrat Michael Dukakis. But if it improved Bush’s chances of being elected that year, it may also have ruined his chances of being re-elected in 1992.
That was because less than two years after making the no-tax pledge, Bush found himself in circumstances in which he no longer felt he could keep it. Locked in budget negotiations with the majority Democrats in the House and Senate, Bush felt he had to allow higher rates on some existing taxes or the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction bill would shut down important services of the government.
So he signed off on a compromise involving revenues as well as spending restraints. Democrats exulted at having forced him to renege. Conservatives seethed. A young Newt Gingrich, elevated to the No. 2 spot in the House Republican leadership the previous year, made no secret of his displeasure. He insisted any option was preferable to any new revenue.
That position helped inspire a major Republican challenger to Bush’s renomination in 1992. He was Patrick Buchanan, a former communications director for Reagan and a familiar commentator on TV. He announced his campaign for president in December 1991, saying he was running “because, we Republicans, can no longer say it is all the liberals’ fault. It was not some liberal Democrat who said, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes,’ then broke his word to cut a seedy backroom budget deal with the big spenders on Capitol Hill.”
Reagan and Bush had won two landslides on a platform that was anti-communist, anti-abortion and anti-tax. Global events had greatly diminished the communist threat by 1990, and Bush devoted little of his time and energy to the abortion issue. That left taxes, and for Bush to abandon that citadel as well was an outrage to many on the right. Buchanan gave Bush enough heartburn in the early primaries that the president actually apologized for his tax shift in several interviews in the spring of 1992.
But whether he would have done differently in retrospect is another question. In July 1990, the federal government was taking on a new obligation to bail out those harmed in the collapse of the savings and loan industry. The annual budget deficit was already $200 billion a year, and the cumulative national debt had grown from $1 trillion in 1980 (when Reagan and Bush were first elected) to $2.7 trillion.
In that same month, the economy was slipping into a recession that was sure to reduce revenues. And Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was about to invade neighboring Kuwait, which would trigger the first Persian Gulf War.
Bush knew the time had come to get the nation’s fiscal house in order, or something like it. His 1990 compromise began a decade of relatively responsible budgeting that, combined with moves made by the Clinton administration in 1993, enabled the federal government to harvest considerable revenue from the personal computer boom of that decade.
As the year 2000 approached, the stock market was booming and the annual budget deficit was nearing zero. Nonetheless, the risk Bush knowingly took with the budget deal turned out to be worse than he realized. He fought off the Gingrich critique and the Buchanan challenge and was renominated in 1992. But he received less than 38 percent of the popular vote in November.
The winner was Clinton, who profited from depressed GOP turnout with nearly one-fifth of the popular vote going to a third-party candidate, businessman H. Ross Perot, who ran against the budget deficit and the national debt.
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