President #41, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #18
In the name of the father …
George Herbert Walker Bush (not that anybody called him that when he was President except when he was sworn in) did not have an easy act to follow, succeeding one of America’s most popular Chief Executives in Ronald Reagan. He came into office in a time when the entire post World War II world was changing in incredible ways. There were economic problems. And there was a war to be fought (but was it to be won?)
At one point during his Presidency, George Bush had an approval rating of 88 percent according to a Gallup Poll. And when he ran for reelection, few people were surprised that Bill Clinton soundly defeated him.
Timothy Naftali, who was written about U.S.-Soviet relations, and now serves as the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, has the unenviable job of trying to figure out just where George Bush fit into the grand scheme of the rapidly changing world from 1989 through 1993. It is a difficult job to put a living figure just 16 years out of office with a far more famous son; but, I enjoyed Naftali’s presentation. He managed to distill the life of a man with a long resume and a Presidency filled with events of great import into an interesting narrative. You can see how George H. W. Bush (he dropped the initials before going into politics and then added them back to his name after George W. Bush became President in 2001) fits into the post Cold War world.
I did notice though it is impossible to write about George H.W. Bush without writing about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Much of George H.W. Bush’s life is circumscribed by his predecessor and his son. Naftali runs into this problem too. The last chapter of the book is more about Bush 43 than Bush 41 it seems.
George Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts on June 12, 1924, the son of Prescott and Dorothy Bush. The Bush family moved to Connecticut when George was quite young. Prescott Bush was a successful businessman and would also go on to serve 11 years in the U.S. Senate.
Like his father, George Bush enrolled at Yale. However, World War II got in the way. Bush postponed his entrance into Yale to become a naval aviator, a feat he achieved just before turning 19. In 1944, Bush’s plane was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft guns. All of the crew except for Bush perished. Bush was able to parachute to safety.
With the war nearing its end, Bush returned to Yale. He married Barbara Pierce in January of 1945. Bush captained a Yale baseball team that made it to College World Series. He and Barbara produced six children, some of whom went on to some renown (but that’s for a later post.)
It was a tradition in the Bush family for the men to go out on their own and not to rely on their father’s wealth. So, after graduating from Yale, the Bush family headed for Texas. George Bush started an oil drilling business, along with some friends from Yale. It proved to be quite successful and Bush became a millionaire in his own right.
Like his father, George Bush began to show an interest in politics. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and run for a seat in the Senate against Democrat Ralph Yarborough in 1964. Bush decided to ally himself with Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. This strategy raised Bush’s profile nationally, but did not help him in the election. Yarborough won with 56% of the vote.
Two years later, Bush opted to run for a House seat and won. He became the first Republican to represent a Houston district, serving two terms. In 1968, Bush took aim at Yarborough’s Senate seat. However, Lloyd Bentsen defeated Yarborough in the Democratic primary. Bush would lose to Bentsen.
Bush was not through with politics. Richard Nixon rewarded Bush for his efforts in Texas by naming him Ambassador to the United Nations in 1971. Two years later, Bush had an even more difficult job. He was named Chairman of the Republican National Committee as the Watergate crisis was coming to a boil. Bush, as was his nature, stayed loyal to Nixon as long as he could, but even he realized that the longer Nixon stayed in office, the worse off the Republican Party would be.
New President Gerald Ford decided to give Bush a less depressing assignment. In 1974, Ford appointed Bush as the United States Representative to China. (The two nations had not established formal diplomatic relations.) Bush had hoped to be named Ford’s Vice President (and he also had hoped that Nixon would have added him to the ticket in 1972), but that was not to be. Nelson Rockefeller was appointed to the position.
Bush worked in China for a little over a year, but was brought back to the United States to head up the Central Intelligence Agency, which was then under heavy fire after a series of Senate hearings revealed a pattern of illegal or unwarranted activities done by the agency. Bush thought this job would finish him off politically as there was too much baggage attached to it. But, Bush did not want to appear to be disloyal to the President, fearing that it would hurt his chances to run with Ford in 1976.
As it turned out, Ford chose Senator Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976, but lost anyway to Jimmy Carter. Bush offered to remain on as CIA director under Carter, but the new President chose Admiral Stansfield Turner for the job. George Bush was seemingly gone from public view.
Or was he? Bush decided to make a run at the White House in 1980. He adopted Carter’s model and announced early, in 1978. He started organizing in Iowa before the presumptive nominee, Reagan, had made much headway there. The move paid off and Bush surprised many pundits by winning in Iowa. As Bush proclaimed, he had “the Big Mo!”
However, it all fell apart quickly in the rest of the 1980 campaign. In New Hampshire, Bush got into a situation where he refused to debate all of the Republican contenders, except for Reagan. So, at a debate when the other candidates showed up (Howard Baker, John Anderson, John Connolly, Phil Crane, and Bob Dole), Bush wouldn’t speak. And when Reagan began to speak, the moderator ordered the microphones cut. Reagan then famously declared, “Mr. Green [the moderator] I paid for this microphone!”
Actually, Reagan hadn’t paid for the microphone. But, it certainly looked like he did. Bush looked meek compared to the forceful Reagan. Reagan won in New Hampshire and cruised to the nomination.
When it came time to pick a nominee for Vice President, Reagan’s first choice was going to be former President Gerald Ford. But, Ford wanted to have unprecedented latitude for someone in the job. Ultimately, both Reagan and Ford realized the idea was unworkable. So, Reagan went for the safe choice, George Bush.
However, there were a few problems. For starters, the two men weren’t close. And during the campaign, Bush had referred to Reagan’s supply side economic plan for the United State as “voodoo economics.” However, Bush showed himself quite adaptable to what the top of the ticket wanted. The 1980 election would be described as “not close.”
As Vice President, Bush quickly had a chance to show that he was up to the job. On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley. In the confusion that ensued, Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared that he was in charge. Except Haig wasn’t. Legally, Reagan was still in charge. But, it was Bush who appeared on TV screens reassuring the public. Bush also declined to use the same privileges (such as special entrances to the White House) that the President was entitled to.
As Reagan recuperated, he began to include Bush in more policy-making decisions. Reagan and Bush won reelection in 1984 in a landslide.
Toward the end of Reagan’s second term, a scandal began to brew. The complex Iran-Contra Scandal would be one of the major blemishes on Reagan’s record. The convoluted plan involved the U.S. government attempting to gain leverage with Hezbollah groups holding American hostages in Lebanon. To accomplish this, the U.S. sold missiles to Iran, through an Israeli intermediary. Then, the plan was changed to sell the arms directly to Iran, but siphon off some of the money to help fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
However, it was against the law to give money to the Contras. Nevertheless, the plan was approved. Hezbollah released some hostages, but took more to replace them. It was a bit of a mess. Only two people, National Security Adviser John Poindexter and his aide, Oliver North, were tried in court in connection with this affair. Although both men were initially convicted, their verdicts were overturned for differing reasons.
Although Bush served on the National Security Council, he somehow managed to avoid any involvement (at least that has been shown to date) in the matter. Whether or not Bush agreed with the aims of the plan is still debated.
1988 would be George Bush’s year. He was the leading candidate for the nomination to replace Reagan. However, no sitting Vice President had been elected President since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Bush’s major opponent would be Robert Dole. However, television evangelist Pat Robertson also entered the race, changing the dynamic, making the evangelical vote more important.
Dole prevailed in the Iowa caucuses, but Bush came back to win in New Hampshire. After that, it was mostly smooth sailing. On May 12, 1988, Reagan endorsed Bush for the Presidency.
Bush went to the Republican Convention needing to pick a running mate. He settled on Indiana Senator Dan Quayle. The announcement was far from smooth. Quayle was at the back of a large crowd when the announcement was made and came charging up on to the stage with a great deal of exuberance. However, Bush’s team hadn’t completely vetted Quayle. Questions about Quayle’s avoidance of military service in Vietnam and seeming lack of experience would dog the campaign until Election Day.
During his acceptance speech, Bush decided to appeal to the conservative base of the party when describing how he would handle the rapidly increasing budget deficit. He said, “Read my lips, no more taxes.” It would be a catch phrase that would haunt Bush for his whole administration.
The general election campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was decidedly unpleasant. Dukakis, who had started with a huge lead in the polls, quickly frittered it away, mostly by being himself. That is, he was an incredibly dull candidate who managed to make Bush look charismatic.
Bush’s campaign also continued to hit at Dukakis on issues such as prisoner furloughs (the linked ad was not directly paid for by Bush’s campaign), and whether or not Massachusetts school children should be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The televised debates involved enlightened questions such as this one.
Dukakis seemed fortunate to win 45.6% of the vote and 111 electoral votes (10 states and the District of Columbia.) Bush was finally able to put the job he always wanted on his resume.
Upon taking office, Bush inherited a major financial crisis. The savings and loan industry, which had been deregulated to some extent in the early 1980s, was facing massive amounts of failures. The S&L’s were allowed to invest in even riskier real estate dealings (they previously had been limited to financing residential property almost exclusively) and other questionable financial practices. The whole industry was on the brink of collapse, as they had to offer higher and higher interest rates to investors, while being unable to raise interest rates to lenders. It would require $161 billion from the Federal Government to clean up the situation.
The S&L bailout only made the budget deficit problem worse. Democrats and moderate Republicans hoped to put into place a package of limited tax increases along with budget cuts. But, Bush refused to go along with any new taxes because of his campaign pledge. As has been the norm in the American history, the problem was deferred to a later date.
Some issues could not be put off. Bush’s National Security Team, with Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, in charge wanted to thoroughly study the changes going on in the Soviet Union before making a commitment to a new policy. But, there was no time for a study. The Iron Curtain fell apart in a matter of months.
Poland’s Communist leaders legalized the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa in February of 1989. After a brief power sharing agreement, the Communists faded away. Yugoslavia began to split apart along on ethnic lines, although this would prove to be far from a peaceful process. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia pulled away from the Soviet Union.
The biggest change was in Germany. East Germany, which suffered under one of the most oppressive Communist governments, collapsed in October of 1989. The Berlin Wall, the most visible symbol of Communism, came down. As the rest of the Soviet satellite states sloughed off Communism, so too did the Soviet Union. It broke apart (although some hard-liners tried one last coup for old time’s sake) into independent republics.
Bush was restrained in his initial public statements about the events in Europe. “I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush would say. It seemed odd when the primary foreign policy goal of the United States, particularly Bush’s predecessor, had been met.
However, not all went smoothly in the world of foreign affairs. While Communism in Europe passed away, Communism in China persisted. Demonstrations in the streets of Beijing in May of 1989 were suppressed by the military. The death toll was in the thousands, the exact total never known. Bush sent Scowcroft to Beijing for secret talks to ask for leniency for the protesters. The United States had no leverage though and could do little but complain.
Bush ordered U.S. troops into Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega, the leader of the nation, so he could be tried in the United States for drug trafficking. Operation Just Cause ultimately restored some semblance of order in a country that was once of the strongest allies of the United States.
On August 1, 1990, the Bush Presidency faced its biggest crisis. Iraqi forces invaded and occupied the nation of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein declared that he had annexed Kuwait as part of Iraq. Suddenly, the entire Persian Gulf region was in danger from Saddam’s forces.
At first, the United States sent in forces to Saudi Arabia to help protect the oil-rich nation. This was Operation Desert Shield. Delicate diplomacy in the UN was able to expand the forces in the Gulf Region and give it a UN blessing. Congress approved a joint resolution authorizing the use of force.
On January 17, 1991, Desert Shield became Desert Storm. The Iraqi forces were quickly driven from Kuwait, and they retreated back into Iraq. Bush and his generals faced the decision on whether to continue the battle into Iraq. The decision was to stop. The belief was that a prolonged war in the Persian Gulf was something that the country was not prepared for. (Similarly, I’m not prepared to write about this at length either. Because it would take several thousand more words. And I would get depressed.)
After the success of Desert Storm, Bush soared in his approval ratings. A calamitous drop would soon follow. As Naftali puts it, Bush’s support was wide, but it was not deep. By the time of the election, Bush’s unfavorable ratings were higher than his favorable ones.
Bush’s downfall would be the economy. Despite his pledge of no new taxes, Bush was forced to approve an increase in the income tax and the capital gains tax. Unemployment went up to 7.8%. Conservative Republicans felt betrayed. They did not believe that Bush was another Reagan. Bush’s approval ratings went on a sharp decline.
During the 1992 campaign, Bush faced a primary challenge in New Hampshire from conservative political pundit Pat Buchanan. Bush won in New Hampshire; but, Buchanan picked up a surprisingly high 37% of the vote. This forced Bush to move farther to the right, a place he was not comfortable.
Further complicating matters was the addition of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. Perot mounted a campaign based on a balanced Federal budget and an opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Perot said he would run for President if volunteers could get his name on the ballot in all 50 states.
The Democrats were going to nominate Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Despite admitted extramarital affairs and his avoidance of military service in Vietnam, Clinton pushed on ahead to seize the nomination easily.
The three-horse race for a while turned into a two-horse race when Perot dropped out, citing interference from the Bush campaign, even accusing Bush’s people of trying to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. Perot would rejoin the race a week later, but now was more or less branded as a flake.
The campaign between Bush and Clinton was quite a contrast. Clinton was the first Baby Boom generation candidate. He had far more charisma than the dour Dukakis of 1988. Also, Clinton was not nearly as liberal as Dukakis, making him a much more palatable choice to a good swath of the country. Bush seemed to be older and out of touch. Clinton won the election by a wide margin in the Electoral College (370-168), although Perot’s participation kept Clinton at just 43% of the popular vote.
Soon after his electoral defeat, Bush’s mother, Dorothy, died at the age of ninety-one. As Bush left office, he gave pardons to many of the principals in the Iran-Contra scandal, including Poindexter, North, and former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. George and Barbara Bush retired to Houston, where the home they hoped to have built for them after he left office in 1993 was not yet finished.
Bush went on speaking tours. One such tour in 1993 took him to Kuwait, where it turned out that the local authorities had foiled a plot by Iraqi operatives to assassinate the former president. This event would be remembered by Bush’s son, George W. Bush.
The Bush family would be heard from again. It would take just eight years.
(Insert dramatic music and pause to create “To be continued…” effect like they do on TV.)
Other stuff: The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum is on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. Note that they don’t use any initials in the name.
George H.W. Bush is the only father of a President who saw his son be inaugurated. John Adams was not able to see John Quincy Adams take the oath of office in 1825 because of his advanced age (89).
The Navy’s most recently commissioned aircraft carrier is called the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. The principal airport in Houston is called George Bush Intercontinental Airport.