The Washington Post Sunday
The speech George H.W. Bush didn’t give.
Since the death of George H.W. Bush, there have been many recollections of the 41st president’s most famous lines and most memorable speeches.
The “thousand points of light” metaphor from his GOP national convention and inaugural speeches, in 1988 and 1989, was used by the current White House to celebrate the former commander in chief just months after President Trump openly ridiculed it. Bush’s “read my lips” promise got pulled into roundup after roundup of his best-known sayings.
Yet Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who has made a study of presidential rhetoric, said in an interview Monday that what’s even more noteworthy are remarks he didn’t make: any kind of big public speech after the Berlin Wall fell, at a time when many expected one.
“He could have said, ‘We did it. The U.S. is victorious‚’ ” said Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “But he did not do that. And as a result, he didn’t get the kind of credit in that moment that he might have.”
That measured approach to leadership in a time of tumultuous world events embodies the kind of leader Bush was, said Jamieson and others.
Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and author of the book “When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War,” said in an interview that despite pressure from lawmakers, the media and others, the 41st president refused, in Bush’s words, “to dance on the wall.”
Then-House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, lamented that “at the very time freedom and democracy are receiving standing ovations in Europe, our president is sitting politely in the audience with little to say and even less to contribute.”
CBS reporter Lesley Stahl said to Bush, during a press gaggle in the Oval Office, that “this is sort of a great victory for our side in the East-West battle, but you don’t seem elated.” Bush spoke to reporters, but he “gave a master class in how to speak for half an hour without saying anything,” Engel said.
There was a reason for that restraint. Bush had been receiving warnings since his first week in office that conservative communists might attempt a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader. Bush and others feared an outbreak of violence similar to China’s Tiananmen Square massacre. Indeed, the word “Tiananmen” shows up repeatedly in his notes from calls during those nights, Engel said. Triumphalism in the West was seen as a threat to Gorbachev’s standing in the Kremlin. Bush’s dialing back the rhetoric was a way of walking that political tightrope.
“Everything he said was cautious and calculated because he realized, frankly, in a way that I wish that subsequent presidents realized — including the current one — that everything he said was magnified around the world,” Engel said.
Timothy McBride, a former Bush aide, expressed similar ideas in a presidential oral history interview done by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, according to a transcript of the interview. In part because Bush didn’t speak out more triumphantly at the time, McBride said, “most people identify the fall of the wall with Reagan and some of his messages.”
But, in McBride’s view, Germany’s reunification, along with “the peaceful unwind of the Cold War, is probably the signature, the most important contribution President Bush’s presidency has made to history. That could have gone many different ways, and I think it was his leadership that led to the unwind of that.”
His restraint didn’t help Bush politically. His reelection campaign was burdened by a weak economy, and he could have benefited from a bold speech in Berlin, proclaiming victory in the Cold War with the demolished wall in the background.
It also reinforced the negative public image of Bush as an outof-touch patrician and a “wimp” with “no political backbone,” Engel said.
The perception was that Bush had “a lack of interest or laziness — two things which were the exact opposite in real life,” Engel said. “The pressure continued to mount for him to go and do something that would be a fireworks moment, and he simply refused,” in part because he knew a summit with Gorbachev was just weeks away.
“When we think about Bush not dancing on the wall, remember he’s invited to a bigger dinner dance two weeks later,” Engel said. He described Bush’s foreign policy philosophy as “Hippocratic”: “If things are going well, don’t screw it up.”
Engel said Bush was a president who “really understood that he was a caretaker of the White House and that his job was to hand the baton to the next guy.” He knew, Engel said, that the nation and the office were so much “bigger than one man’s political fortunes — specifically something I do not see today.”
The lack of a big showy speech was a reminder, Jamieson said, that “sometimes the right thing to do is not celebrate and engage in a rhetoric of triumph.”
As Jamieson put it: “When you evaluate a presidency, you ask, ‘Did the president, in difficult times, make decisions that were good for the country even if they were not in his political interest?’ ”