At his death, George Herbert Walker Bush is suffering the unkind fate of being celebrated as an anti-Trump. A man of Yankee-style dignity and prudence, who at his core believed himself to be a patriotic public servant, Bush would have been honored to have his career measured according to a very different, wholly honorable standard, that of a former president like Dwight Eisenhower, perhaps, or even of his own father, Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, who played a role in censuring Senator Joseph McCarthy. Not that Bush ever boasted to meet their standard — that would have been unseemly — but even a likening would have been a proud marker of a life well-lived. Instead, like John McCain before him, Bush stands as an exemplary statesman compared to the most vicious, arrogant, cowardly, clueless and corrupt political figure in contemporary American life, and possibly in all of American history. Bush is not allowed to stand in punditry among history’s nobles; he is diminished by being declared superior to scum.
More thoughtful commentators have tried to assess a career that was riddled with contradictions. As president, Bush proposed building a “kinder, gentler America”; helped oversee the peaceful conclusion to the Cold War and signed the broadest arms reduction treaty in 20 years; backed important social and civil rights legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act; signed the Clean Air Act; stood up to the National Rifle Association and approved a temporary ban on the importation of semi-automatic weapons; and when push came to shove, he broke his “read-my-lips” campaign promise and approved a needed tax increase.
He also shamelessly reversed himself on what he once derided as Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo economics” but adopted out of political expediency; repudiated his past support for family planning and women’s reproductive rights after being a champion of Planned Parenthood; rode to the White House thanks to a racist, demagogic campaign plotted by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes; denounced his Democratic opponent, the upright Michael Dukakis, McCarthy-like, as a coddler of flag-burners and “a card-carrying member of the ACLU”; cynically nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court with the ridiculous claim that he was the best qualified person for the job; vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 as “quota” bill; and advanced the discriminatory and harshly punitive federal war on drugs.
Some pundits claim to have detected a pattern: Bush, they say, was a brass-knuckled dirty fighter on the campaign trail who said and did whatever he needed to in order to win office, but who then governed like a gentlemanly statesman. But while there is some truth in this, it needs saying that Bush’s shifting campaign positions, dating back at least to his vice-presidential race in 1980, earned him dismissive contempt from the national media as well as the Reaganite right. Reagan himself gibed, “He just melts under pressure”; his wife Nancy reportedly made fun in private of Bush’s speaking style and called him “Whiny”; and when he ran for president in 1988, Bush had to overcome what Newsweek called, in one cover story, “The Wimp Factor.” In his politics as in his approach to foreign policy, Bush was a realist, but in his case, political realism could often project hollow weakness instead of tough-minded strength.
Bush’s deeper contradictions had to do with his tortured place in American political history, and in particular the history of the Republican Party. He would always remain tethered to the Northeast and to his father’s moderate, Eisenhower-style “modern” Republicanism, symbolized by his family’s estate, which he called his “windward anchor,” in Kennebunkport, Maine. After his unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1970, his political career centered in Washington, not in Texas. Even as he remade himself amid the Houston oilmen — which had required, among other things, opposing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 — his closest ties remained with establishment political circles, especially in foreign policy, reflected in his appointments as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, director of the C.I.A., and U.S. envoy to China.
Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 brought the breakthrough of antiestablishment sunbelt conservatism, and as Reagan’s running mate and then his loyal vice president, Bush duly resigned from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission (internationalist bogeymen to the hard right), and altered his stance on issues ranging from gun control to legalized abortion. Yet his gestures toward becoming a pork-rind eating, cowboy boot-wearing Reagan Republican were always as awkward as his syntax could sometimes be.
Bush’s tragedy, which would in time become the nation’s, was his conviction that he could, in Reagan’s wake, take command of the party the Gipper had remade, win the White House by hiring the likes of Atwater and Ailes to inflame the GOP’s culture war politics, then somehow govern as a sensible moderate Republican, of a kind the Reagan right despised. Reagan, himself a shrewd politician, had acquiesced to the political necessity of uniting the Republican Party by naming Bush to the ticket in 1980. When a logical conservative successor to Reagan failed to appear by 1988 — Congressman Jack Kemp, the ex-quarterback turned supply-side cheerleader, never quite pulled off the role — the loyal Bush was left as the lone legatee (although it took Reagan until May of 1988 to endorse him).
No matter Bush’s successes in the Oval Office — including the rapid U.S.-led coalition’s victory in the first Iraq War, which briefly propelled the president’s approval ratings into the stratosphere — his political situation was always on the edge of precarious. Disgruntled Washington ideologues, ranging from the paleo-conservative veteran of the Nixon and Reagan administrations Pat Buchanan to the brash, up-and-coming, newly-selected House minority whip from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, who had targeted Bush for his own advantage, flew into open revolt following the tax-raising 1990 budget deal. Bush had given a hostage to fortune during the 1988 campaign to lock in the Reaganites, declaring at the national convention against his better wisdom, “Read my lips—no new taxes.” It was a promise inevitably made to be broken in the interest of fiscal prudence. In the 1992 primaries, a challenge by Buchanan and his so-called “Pitchfork Brigades” — a precursor to the Tea Party — forced the Bush campaign to spend $27 million in order to lock down re-nomination. From another part of the dark Republican populist-nativist forest, amid an economic recession, the erratic Dallas businessman Ross Perot, who loathed Bush personally as well as politically, mounted an independent general election campaign which made Bush’s political life miserable.
Running against the politically sophisticated yet empathic Bill Clinton exposed qualities that Bush lacked, above all a dexterous command of domestic policy leavened by the common touch. But Bush’s failed re-election campaign also showed incontrovertibly that the Reagan coalition of sunbelt conservatives and country-club Republicans (with the vital addition in 1980 of aroused white conservative evangelical Protestants) was in serious trouble. As it happened, though, the radicalization of the Republican Party had just begun. Vowing to restore the true color Reaganism that Bush had betrayed, Gingrich introduced a new style of slash-and-burn politics that created a new GOP House majority, elevated himself to the speakership, and promised to reverse and then destroy President Clinton’s “McGovernick” liberalism. When Clinton outsmarted Gingrich after Gingrich twice shut down the federal government — and when the impeachment effort Gingrich promoted in revenge wound up backfiring — an even more ruthless conservative to Gingrich’s right, Tom DeLay, pushed him out and forced the raw partisan impeachment charade.
More of a Texan than his father, George W. Bush then won the presidency on a promise of “compassionate conservatism,” a slogan abandoned in the bare-knuckled fight in Florida that wound up suppressing the black vote and gaining him the prize. With that the son claimed the family honor for the father’s loss in 1992. Unlike his father, though, he pretty much followed the hard right line on everything from tax cuts to stem cells to judicial appointments, which cost him popularity. The terror attacks of September 11th, 2001 and initial public support for the ensuing Iraq war spectacularly reversed Bush’s sagging approval ratings, and he sustained his popularity long enough to win re-election in 2004. But hard-right Republicans and their supporters in Congress kept pushing their party ever further to the right; and by the end of his term, having taken measures to save a collapsing American financial sector that the GOP’s horrified, ever-insurgent ideologues deemed big government heresy, the seeds of the Tea Party were planted. Although he lasted two terms, not one, largely on the basis of the 9/11 shock, the younger Bush was no more capable than his father had been at quelling the transformation of their party into an aberration in American history, becoming less a political party than an ideological outsider that would stop at nothing to gain power and to hold it. And when even that Republican leadership failed to satisfy its base, despite relentlessly trashing President Barack Obama, the way was cleared for Donald Trump to commandeer the GOP and remake it in his own image.
That George H.W. Bush should now be judged on the basis of the rough beast who slouched out of that long degeneration process is, of course, an insult to all that was best in Bush’s character, his temperament, and his public service. But if Trump’s emergence cannot be blamed solely on the elder Bush any more than it can be on his son, his political career was unquestionably entangled with the history that led to Trump. Like most establishment Republicans, Bush thought that he could tame and command the electoral tiger that Reagan — and before him, truth be told, Richard Nixon — had created. Instead, he provoked the tiger to fury and, instead of riding its back, ended up inside its belly. That was his tragedy, but it was a larger tragedy than his alone. In paying our final respects to George H.W. Bush, we are also paying final respects to the last shadow of his father’s old eastern Republican Party. For now, thanks in part to the fecklessness, ambition, and false steps of two generations of Republicans, we are left with the party of Trump.