Farewell to the last of a breed of patriot presidents born to serve
It’ll be said a lot in the days ahead that George HW Bush was the last of the Republican moderates. That’s not totally accurate. Bush was instrumental in creating the modern, Right-wing Republican Party, the alliance of economic and social conservatives that would eventually nominate Donald Trump – which is ironic given that Bush’s character was the very opposite of Trump’s.
His background cast him as the ultimate east coast patrician: raised in Connecticut, Episcopalian, son of a senator, Yale graduate, oil man, envoy to the UN and China, chairman of the Republican National Committee and head of the CIA. His electoral career, however, was choppy.
Bush ran twice for the Senate from Texas and lost. What he took from those campaigns was that you have to hit your opponent hard, and “liberal” is a dirty word down South. Bush opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed various forms of discrimination, including racial segregation. On the other hand, after he won a Congress seat in 1966, he took a brave stand in favour of a bill against discrimination in housing. Bush was touted as a conservative Kennedy; he fiercely defended Nixon against wrongdoing accusations until the release of the Watergate tapes.
In 1980, Bush ran for the Republican presidential nomination as a pragmatist, describing Ronald Reagan’s tax cut plan as “voodoo economics”. Reagan added him to his winning ticket for balance – but once Bush was in the White House, he moved fast to the Right.
America, sensed Bush, was beginning to look a lot like Texas. The Republicans were no longer a party of Yale graduates; it was home to Southern ex-Democrats, tax cutters, anti-communists and, crucially, religious conservatives. The Bush who ran for the presidency in 1988 offered a softer kind of Reaganism – he talked of volunteers as “a thousand points of light” – but also declared “read my lips, no new taxes” and was associated with evangelical pastors who were anti-gay rights and anti-abortion. He even allowed campaign staff to engage in a Trumpite personal attack against his Democrat opponent, painting Michael Dukakis as an unpatriotic liberal who let murderers out of jail.
These tactics were deployed yet again in 1992 in his re-election bid against Bill Clinton, although by that time the Reagan boom was over.
Bush had the potential to be a really popular president. His 1988 win was America’s last electoral-vote landslide, and at the height of the Gulf War his approval rating hit 89per cent. Foreign policy was his greatest strength.
Reagan is credited with defeating communism and Clinton with harnessing globalisation, but it was Bush who tried to create a new rules-based order with his war against Saddam Hussein and negotiated a peaceful end to the Cold War.
He believed in the projection of US leadership and free trade, positions that stacked him against both the Left and elements of the Right, which never quite swallowed that Bush was one of them.
The mask dropped in 1990, when he signed off on a tax-raising budget. There was a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan, who accused him of building a new world order. In the general election, Republican support bled to Ross Perot, who opposed unlimited free trade. The Bush years thus incubated the forces that would later put Trump in office.
If Bush’s politics were hard to define, his ability and character were crystal clear. He left a transition letter for Clinton that put a bitter race behind them, writing: “You will be OUR president when you read this note. I wish you well.” In his final hours in the Oval Office, he meditated upon how frustrating it was that journalists kept demanding to know how he “felt” about things, believing that action was more important. Bush saw value in “service for the sake of service … service with honour, service with a flair for decency and hopefully kindness”. These are the qualities which now seem like the dream of a distant America.