Nei­ther a show­man nor a vi­sion­ary, Bush led with flex­i­bil­ity and tough­ness

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - BY WAL­TER MEARS

WASH­ING­TON — Ge­orge Bush was a man with a match­less ré­sumé — com­bat pi­lot, diplo­mat, vice pres­i­dent, then pres­i­dent of the United States — but great com­mu­ni­ca­tor was not on the list. That was Ron­ald Rea­gan.

Nor was he given to the grand de­signs he once dis­missed as “the vi­sion thing.” He was a prag­ma­tist, no show­man. That was a style that worked for a term but not when he sought a sec­ond, los­ing, he thought, be­cause he wasn’t “a good enough com­mu­ni­ca­tor.”

Ge­orge Bush — the H.W. came into use later when his son Ge­orge W. Bush be­came pres­i­dent — be­gan his pres­i­dency in 1989 with a guarded dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence. Guarded be­cause con­ser­va­tives never had been Bush fans and were de­ter­mined to keep Repub­li­cans on the Rea­gan track. In­de­pen­dent be­cause Bush did not want his ad­min­is­tra­tion seen as Rea­gan re­vis­ited.

“There’s go­ing to be change, but hope­fully a build­ing on what’s hap­pened,” Bush said in an As­so­ci­ated

Press in­ter­view be­fore his 1989 in­au­gu­ra­tion. “I’m the one call­ing the shots. I’m the one who’s go­ing to set the agenda.”

He had over­come the po­lit­i­cal de­trac­tors who called him a wimp, a Rea­gan lap­dog, all ré­sumé and no ac­tion.

In 1966, Bush won the first of two terms in the House from Hous­ton, and from the start his po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy was hard to de­fine. He con­sid­ered him­self a cen­trist; Texas Demo­cratic foes called him a right-winger. He sup­ported civil rights leg­is­la­tion de­spite op­po­si­tion at home. Once a sup­porter of abor­tion rights, he be­came an ar­dent foe. He later said his views had evolved.

That seemed the case on more than one is­sue, fod­der for his crit­ics when he got into na­tional pol­i­tics in 1980 af­ter a suc­ces­sion of ap­pointed jobs: am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, chair­man of the Re­pub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, en­voy to China, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency.

He was the re­li­able loy­al­ist, de­fend­ing and de­fer­ring to the lead­ers who chose him. As party chair­man, he echoed Richard Nixon’s Water­gate de­nials al­most to the end.

The loy­alty in­stinct was part of Bush’s Re­pub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment her­itage. He was the son of Prescott Bush, who served as se­na­tor from Con­necti­cut. In the post-World War II era, cen­trist east­ern Repub­li­cans dom­i­nated party coun­cils. It was a sys­tem of trust in which cus­tom counted and rules were un­spo­ken but un­der­stood.

When Bush ran for pres­i­dent in 1980, he was in a field of seven Repub­li­cans led by Rea­gan. That’s when he dis­missed Rea­gan’s bud­get no­tions as “voodoo eco­nom­ics,” a line he would re­gret when as vice pres­i­dent he wound up de­fend­ing the same pro­gram.

Bush nar­rowly up­set Rea­gan in the Iowa cau­cuses in 1980. He claimed cam­paign mo­men­tum, “Big Mo” as he put it. Not for long. Rea­gan trounced Bush in the New Hamp­shire pri­mary and eas­ily won the nom­i­na­tion.

Two terms later, it was Bush’s turn. Nom­i­nated to suc­ceed Rea­gan, he spoke of a kinder, gen­tler na­tion — and then bal­anced the soft words with hard ones, in the phrase that be­came a trade­mark un­til he erased it. “Read my lips,” he said. “No new taxes.”

While Bush would one day write that he had no use for cut­throat pol­i­tics, his 1988 cam­paign fit the de­scrip­tion in the eyes of crit­ics. He did not deal with what he wanted to do as pres­i­dent but with the un­do­ing of Demo­crat Michael Dukakis. Bush ques­tioned Dukakis’ com­mit­ment to the Pledge of Al­le­giance, de­nounced his Mas­sachusetts pol­icy on prison fur­loughs, called him an emo­tion­less ice man be­holden to lib­eral in­ter­est groups, blamed him for the pol­lu­tion of Boston Har­bor. The cam­paign was so neg­a­tive and ir­rel­e­vant that Richard M. Nixon and Barry Gold­wa­ter pub­licly told Bush he should deal with real is­sues.

No mat­ter. Bush won eas­ily. But he was a pres­i­dent with­out a blue­print, and within weeks of tak­ing of­fice he had to deny that his ad­min­is­tra­tion was drift­ing with­out clear pur­pose. He had to deal with the costly sav­ings and loan cri­sis and bailout. The na­tional debt had tripled since 1980, in part be­cause of Rea­gan’s tax cuts and in­creased mil­i­tary spend­ing.

Stuck for an­swers, Bush reread his lips and agreed in June 1990 to “tax rev­enue in­creases” in a bud­get deal with con­gres­sional Democrats to curb spend­ing and raise taxes. He knew the po­lit­i­cal risk, writ­ing in his diary that it “could mean a one-term pres­i­dency but it’s that im­por­tant to the coun­try.”

But con­ser­va­tive out­rage over the tax re­ver­sal was sub­merged in a for­eign cri­sis that fall af­ter Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Iraq in­vaded Kuwait. Bush al­ways said he pre­ferred deal­ing with for­eign pol­icy to cop­ing with Congress in do­mes­tic af­fairs, and this was his kind of is­sue. He put to­gether an un­prece­dented in­ter­na­tional coali­tion, sent Amer­i­can forces to the Mid­dle East, and waged the Per­sian Gulf War that forced Iraq out of Kuwait early in 1991. It was over quickly, a U.S. vic­tory Bush, in re­tire­ment, de­scribed “a sig­na­ture his­toric event.”

But Sad­dam Hus­sein held on to power, and Bush later ac­knowl­edged that he had mis­cal­cu­lated by ex­pect­ing a regime change in Bagh­dad. That would not come un­til 2003, in the Iraq war launched by his son, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. Another son, Jeb Bush, made an un­suc­cess­ful run for the Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in 2016.

With his 1991 war vic­tory, the el­der Bush’s ap­proval rat­ings soared to record highs. But while he was win­ning abroad, the econ­omy had slumped into re­ces­sion at home. Bush didn’t seem to no­tice, and he would pay for that.

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lem got no bet­ter when at one point, his aides gave him a cue card to re­mind him to tell vot­ers how much he cared about their prob­lem. In­stead, he read them the card. “Mes­sage: I care.”

The hard-line neg­a­tive cam­paigner of 1988 seemed dis­tant and aloof in 1992. In a cam­paign de­bate, a woman asked how the na­tional debt had per­son­ally af­fected each can­di­date: Bush, in­de­pen­dent Ross Perot and Demo­crat Bill Clin­ton. A con­fus­ing ques­tion, since the debt does not af­fect in­di­vid­u­als per­son­ally, but the other can­di­dates fig­ured out an­swers. Bush stum­bled. He ram­bled a bit, then said: “I’m not sure I get it. Help me with the ques­tion.”

Min­utes later when the cam­era panned the stage, Bush was glanc­ing at his watch, an every­day re­flex but one that fed the op­po­si­tion im­age of a bored, un­in­ter­ested can­di­date.

The Democrats never let up. Bush was the can­di­date who didn’t get it. Clin­ton did, and beat him. Even so, when Bush left of­fice, the polls showed that well over half the coun­try ap­proved of the man, even though they had spurned the pres­i­dent.

Per­haps that had some­thing to do with an at­ti­tude he did suc­ceed in com­mu­ni­cat­ing:

“Don’t con­fuse be­ing soft with see­ing the other guy’s point of view.”


On Nov. 9, 1988, Pres­i­dent-elect Ge­orge H.W. Bush ac­knowl­edged ap­plause dur­ing a vic­tory rally in Hous­ton with son Ge­orge W. Bush (left), who would go on to be­come pres­i­dent him­self, and grand­son Ge­orge P. Bush. Ge­orge P. Bush now serves as Texas land com­mis­sioner.

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