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GEORGE BUSH


Excerpted from an essay by Michael R. Beschloss:

More than any other leader portrayed in this book save Eisenhower, Bush based his three campaigns for the presidency less on issues and ideology than on his persona as a leader of experience and character.

Born in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1924, Bush matured in Greenwich, Connecticut, a setting that gave him little inkling of the political culture in which he would spend his adulthood. The boy was surrounded mainly by Anglophile, moderate Repubicans, for whom politics was Good Government and the town meeting, who minimized partisan confrontation and overstatement. As Bush's mother, Dorothy, admonished, one did not brag about oneself....

Had Bush in 1948 stayed in Connecticut after his heroism in the Pacific War and graduation from Yale, he would have been well poised to succeed his father in politics. As senator from Connecticut, George Bush would have been temperamentally and ideologically in tune with his state and party. Instead, eager to hack out his own business career, the young man took his wife, Barbara, and son, George, to the oilfields of Texas. This meant that from the day he entered politics, he would have to submerge many of his views and instincts to please an electorate that was notably more conservative than he. Politics was easier for Ronald Reagan: for every minute of his political career, he had the luxury of being in natural harmony with his party.

Not Bush. The first harbinger of this was in the spring of 1962, when Houston friends persuaded him to run for chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, whose slogan was "Conservatives Unite!" The local party was in imminent danger of takeover by the John Birch Society. During a speech near Houston, Bush was asked where he stood on the "Liberty Amendments." This referred to planks in the John Birch program such as "get the U.S. out of the U.N." and "abolish the Federal Reserve." Baffled, Bush turned to his wife, working on her needlepoint, who could offer no help. Bluffing, he told the questioner he needed time to study "these important amendments." Like a Puritan in Babylon, Bush tried to broaden his party and mollify the Birchers, telling a colleague, "There's some good in everybody." The reply: "George, you don't know these people. They mean to kill you!"

Having learned that lesson, Bush swung to the opposite extreme when he ran for the Senate in 1964. He opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He wished to arm Cuban exiles to go after Fidel Castro. He denounced the United Nations. The Democrats were "too soft" on Vietnam: if the generals asked for nuclear weapons against the North, they should not be ignored. .....

Amid the national Johnson landslide, Bush lost the election with only 44 percent of the vote. He told his Houston minister, "I took some of the far-right positions to get elected. I hope I never do it again. I regret it."

Never again during his career did George Bush wage a campaign so unrelievedly conservative, or so oriented toward issues. When he ran for Congress from Houston in 1966, he created the archetype of the Bush campaigns of the future: the candidate's personal qualities were emphasized over stark ideological commitments. Bush told a reporter, "Labels are for cans." ......

Another sign of Bush's new moderation was his vote in April 1968 for Lyndon Johnson's Fair Housing Act, which banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. In his district, Bush told a town meeting, which jeered him, that it seemed "fundamental that a man should not have a door slammed in his face because he is a Negro or speaks with a Latin American accent." He wrote a friend, "I never dreamed the reaction would be so violent. Seething hatred--the epithets... The country club crowd disowning me and denouncing me.... Tonight [I was on] this plane and this older lady came up to me. She said, 'I'm a conservative Democrat from this district, but I ....will always vote for you now.' ...Her accent was Texan (not Connecticut) and suddenly somehow I felt that maybe it would all be OK--and I started to cry--with the poor lady embarrassed to death--I couldn't say a word to her." ......

During his first presidential campaign in 1980, Bush bowed to no one in denouncing Carter's softness toward the Russians. But... he grounded his appeal for votes on his own persona. Bush strategists gushed about "the best resume in America" .....

This approach brought Bush victory in the Iowa caucus, where Reagan scarcely campaigned. With the national spotlight shining on him the weeks before the crucial New Hampshire primary gave him the opportunity to explain with Reganesque clarity what he would do if elected. Instead, Bush prattled away that he had the big momentum--the "Big Mo"--which suggest to conservatives that he was not a leader who took their causes with due gravity. Bush later confessed that such "preppy phrases" gave "an impression that my campaign lacked substance." In New Hampshire, Reagan turned the tide, besting him by more than two to one......

At the Republican Convention in Detroit, Ronald Reagan worried about the depth of Bush's convictions. At first he resisted advice to choose for Vice President the man who had gotten the second most votes in the primaries. He privately disparaged Bush's ability to "stand up to the pressure of being President": "I'm concerned about turning the country over to him." But after former President Ford withdrew his name from consideration, Reagan swallowed his doubts, made the call, and asked Bush whether he could support the party platform, the most conservative in forty years.

This was no small question. During the primaries, Bush had derided Reagan's hallmark pledge to cut taxes while hugely increasing the defense budget as "voodoo economics." He had supported abortion rights. But, willing to pay the price for political rebirth, Bush immediately told Reagan that he could support the platform "wholeheartedly." .....

Bush's eight years as Reagan's number two were made miserable by his ostentatious effort to convince what he privately called the "extra-chromosome" conservatives that he was not some kind of closet one-world liberal. Bush's vice-presidential predecessor, Walter Mondale, had warned him after the 1980 election that "a President does not want and the public does not respect a Vice President who does nothing but deliver fulsome praise of a President." ....

But Bush now felt his only chance for President in 1988 lay in winning over Reagan and his increasingly dominant wing of the party. On the simple level of private character, he showed admirable loyalty. More than any other vice president of the post-war era, Bush refused to allow sunlight between himself and his President. He eschewed background interviews with reporters designed to make himself look good at the boss's expense and used all public opportunities to demonstrate himself as a Reaganite, at one moment incautiously saying, "I'm for Mr. Reagan, blindly!" He defended himself by saying that in his family, loyalty was "not considered a character flaw."

It was the unrelenting ardor of that loyalty, from a Vice President who had once so disagreed with the Reaganites, that critics considered a character flaw. .......

During the (1988) campaign, Bush had encouraged the impression that his first years in office might be tantamount to Reagan's third term, with many Reagan appointees held over and the former President perhaps flown in from California from time to time as a kind of political godfather. That did not happen. Few high officials survived from the era of Reagan into that of Bush. During the Bush presidency, the forty-first President, who still held the hearts of most Republicans and to whom Bush owed his office, appeared in the White House exactly twice. Many conservatives suspected that by thumbing his nose at Reaganism, the new President, intoxicated by victory, was paying them back for all the years of humiliations while courting the right.

If they were correct, Bush was showing dangerous hubris and self-indulgence. The Republican Party, if anything, was growing more conservative than ever. If Bush did not wish to expend the effort to try moving his party to the center, as Eisenhower had attempted and failed to do, it would have been more sensible for the President to show that he understood the balance of forces within his party. But, buoyed by his high approval ratings, Bush gave signs of allowing himself to believe that he was unsinkable. His "what-me-worry?" attitude culminated in July 1990, when he reneged on his supreme campaign promise not to raise taxes. This told conservatives once and for all that Bush was not really one of them. .....

gorbachev Had someone other than Bush been President during those years it is conceivable that the Cold War could have ended under terms less favorable to the West than it did. Bush's gift for building relationships with other leaders was put to excellent use with Gorbachev. Like Bush, Gorbachev had spent his political career concealing his private views from superiors and a party that did not share them. Like Bush, he was uncomfortable with the intense emotion and the unpredictability unleashed by ideological true political believers like Boris Yeltsin. The two men felt that they spoke the same language.

gorbachev Through their summits and other means, Bush succeeded in putting the Soviet leader at ease that if he made dangerous concessions, such as allowing his Eastern European satellites to go free, he could expect Bush not to exploit them or embarrass him for domestic political gain. When Gorbachev allowed the Berlin Wall to collapse, Bush denied himself considerable domestic capital by refusing to go to Berlin and capitalize on the victory. .....

The Persian Gulf War displayed Bush's best political self: a President of stature, willing to take risks and exert himself to educate the public in international relations, in ways that he was never willing to do in domestic affairs or party politics.

Bush emerged from the Gulf War in March 1991 with a public approval rating of 91 percent, but with the recession in earnest. Some political advisers proposed that he wage an "Operation Domestic Storm" to strengthen the economy and address other domestic problems ignored during Bush's first two years. The President refused. He saw his Gulf victory, the approaching end of the Cold War, and his commanding popularity as a vindication of his decision to concentrate on world affairs. Calling attention to the weak economy would merely damage public confidence and prolong the recession. And who could unhorse a President so clearly indispensable in foreign policy? Rather than respond to increasing signs of public discomfort, he looked the other way.

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