Remembering President Bush

Today is a national day of mourning for George Herbert Walker Bush, the first President Bush, that is, who served a single term in office after he was elected to succeed Ronald Reagan.

When someone dies, it is customary to say only good things about them – and indeed, the first George Bush did do many good things, and comes across as a gentleman compared to the politics of today. But it needs to be said that he was by no means perfect. While he never stooped to the level of outrageous personal attacks and lies common today, his campaign manager, Lee Atwater, was in many ways the father of today’s negative campaigning.

It was Atwater, after all, who produced the outrageously racist “Willie Horton” ads that did so much to sink the candidacy of Michael Dukakis; as we have recently learned, Atwater may also have set up and framed Gary Hart, who might have been a much stronger candidate.

Atwater himself soon died of a brain tumor, and apologized to Dukakis before he died. But the nasty and negative attack ads he pioneered lived on and got steadily worse, and what Atwater did in Bush’s 1988 campaign was never, as I know, repudiated by the candidate.

The first President Bush was a man of great personal courage, as his service in combat proved. Nobody ever doubted his financial integrity, and he seems to have been a superb husband, father and grandfather. But he was not a true politician. He lacked the common touch. Bush was a politician, however, in that he sometimes had portable principles.

He was a pro-choice Republican, until he found that becoming anti-abortion was the price of becoming vice-president on Ronald Reagan’s ticket. He also – correctly – attacked Reagan’s “trickle-down” theory of economic growth as “voodoo economics.”

But when he joined Reagan’s ticket, he promptly embraced his economic platform. Don’t get me wrong. In terms of foreign policy, Bush was one of the best presidents we’ve had.

He masterfully helped end the Cold War, being smart enough not to gloat or try to meddle in the collapse of European Communism and the Soviet Union. Had he done so, the outcome might have been bloody and very different.

For that alone, he deserves to be remembered. He also put together a coalition in 1990 which did the necessary work of driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

That was a far harder feat than commonly realized. He was sometimes criticized later for not going all the way to Baghdad and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But we forget that he didn’t have a mandate from our Muslim allies to do that, and when his son, the second President Bush, did conquer Iraq a dozen years later, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that well.

You might think that Bush deserved reelection for his foreign policy achievements alone. But when it came to reaching people, making them believe he was one of them and that he felt their pain, he was pretty much a failure, staring at his watch during a debate and appearing stunned at the sight of a supermarket scanner, though they had been in use for years.

And while I think he might have been better cast as Secretary of State or in another top cabinet spot, he ended up in the presidency, and I think our nation was lucky he did when he did.

I didn’t vote for him in 1988, but looking back at world history, I am very glad that George Herbert Walker Bush won.