Ge­orge H.W. Bush

The one-term pres­i­dent wasn’t into the ‘vi­sion thing.’ But he skill­fully han­dled his­toric crises.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ED­I­TO­RI­ALS

AONE-TERM ad­min­is­tra­tion is al­most au­to­mat­i­cally la­beled “failed.” When Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush was de­feated a quar­ter-cen­tury ago, af­ter four years in of­fice, he had a ter­ri­ble ap­proval rat­ing and was scorned by op­po­si­tion Democrats and many Repub­li­cans, too. “He was an in­ef­fec­tive one-term pres­i­dent,” said Lyn Nofziger, a blunt-spo­ken for­mer aide to Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan. “He walked away from the Rea­gan legacy and tried to cre­ate his own — and failed at that.”

This char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally acer­bic ver­dict by the late Mr. Nofziger was un­fair in 1995 and seems even more so to­day. The truth about the first Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion was never con­cealed: Mr. Bush, who died Fri­day at 94, had no grand dreams of trans­for­ma­tion, wasn’t much into “the vi­sion thing,” as he put it. What Mr. Bush did was han­dle a se­ries of his­toric crises with com­pe­tence and re­straint, while deal­ing with the ev­ery­day con­flicts and com­pro­mises of leg­is­lat­ing and bud­get­ing in a re­spon­si­ble and rea­son­able way. Mr. Bush did well while hold­ing of­fice. His most unattractive acts came in the seek­ing of it.

The end of the Cold War and of the Soviet Union, mo­men­tous events, oc­curred on Mr. Bush’s watch. There were mis­steps, but over­all his han­dling was skill­ful; Mr. Bush saw the im­por­tance of giv­ing Soviet re­form­ers tacit sup­port while not pro­vok­ing their op­po­nents to act against them. His de­ci­sions in 1990-1991 to pro­tect Arab al­lies and drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait were bold and well-taken. Less de­fen­si­ble were the call on Iraqis to rise up against Sad­dam Hus­sein af­ter the war, and the fail­ure to re­spond when Hus­sein pro­ceeded to slaugh­ter those who did.

Mr. Bush was born into Repub­li­can pol­i­tics; his fa­ther served as a U.S. se­na­tor from Con­necti­cut. But it was a very dif­fer­ent Repub­li­can Party then, one in which the Bush fam­ily’s com­mit­ment to such causes as civil rights and fam­ily plan­ning was ac­cept­able. When the young Bush en­tered pol­i­tics in Texas, where he’d gone to make his for­tune in the oil busi­ness, he soon be­came aware of the right­ward drift in the party, and he ran for the U.S. Se­nate as a hardcore con­ser­va­tive who op­posed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He lost that elec­tion, and by the time he did make it to Wash­ing­ton as a con­gress­man, he was once again tak­ing a more mod­er­ate stand on civil rights and other is­sues.

In his come-from-be­hind pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 1988 against then-Mas­sachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Mr. Bush re­lied on be­low-the-belt at­tacks on such “is­sues” as his op­po­nent’s fur­lough pro­gram for pris­on­ers and veto of a state bill man­dat­ing the Pledge of Al­le­giance in schools. Per­haps the most dam­ag­ing thing he did that year was ac­cept a slo­gan peo­ple would re­mem­ber: “Read my lips — no new taxes.” It was remembered all too well when Mr. Bush, act­ing as a pres­i­dent ought to in deal­ing with re­al­ity, agreed to a deal with Democrats to cut bal­loon­ing deficits, in part by rais­ing some taxes. Repub­li­cans’ anger at what they con­sid­ered a be­trayal, as well as a brief eco­nomic down­turn, con­trib­uted greatly to Mr. Bush’s de­feat.

It was odd that the term “wimp” was ap­plied to Ge­orge H.W. Bush, a man who en­listed in the Navy the day he turned 18 and flew 58 com­bat mis­sions. Per­haps odder was how the co­me­dian and Bush im­per­son­ator Dana Car­vey (whom Mr. Bush later be­friended) had such suc­cess with a line pok­ing fun at the pres­i­dent’s care­ful­ness: “Wouldn’t be pru­dent.” Funny how, since Mr. Bush left of­fice, and es­pe­cially in the past few years of po­lit­i­cal pos­tur­ing, non­nego­tiable de­mands and unashamed dem­a­goguery, pru­dence has come to look aw­fully at­trac­tive.

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