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Praise, not precision, carries the day when a significant figure dies. But the eulogies extolling George H.W. Bush have so surpassed his performance that we run the risk of distorting historical reality.
There is, no doubt, much to praise in the character of the forty-first president. George Bush served courageously in World War II. He saw a daughter waste away from leukemia. He had a Christian gentleman’s sense of décor and humility. He reportedly built espirit de corps among his employees. Despite media attempts to gin up a “mistress” to put him on par with Bill Clinton, Bush likely never cheated on his wife—a trait as rare as it is admirable among the political class. And he held Barbara’s hand for hours the day she died.
He may have been a good man, but he was not a good president.
On abortion, Bush’s record remains deeply mixed. As a congressman (1967-71), George Bush was so committed to government-funded population control that he earned the nickname “Rubbers.” One of Bush’s passions, Title X, still pumps millions of dollars into Planned Parenthood’s coffers every year.
He campaigned as a pro-choice Republican in 1980, until Ronald Reagan demanded his public support. Even after his change of heart, which was reportedly sincere, Bush strongly backed abortion in the cases of rape or incest.
Bush’s most lasting legacy on abortion has been a split decision on the Supreme Court. Bush appointed David Souter to the high court, despite testimony from Howard Phillips revealing Souter’s pro-abortion stance. After all, John Sununu promised that Souter would be “a home run for conservatives.” (One can hear echoes of the Deep State’s assures to the younger Bush that finding WMDs in Iraq would be a “slam dunk.”) Souter went on to join four other Republican appointees in upholding the “right” to an abortion in the 1992 Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision, as he perpetrated two decades of jurisprudential ignominy.
On the other hand, Bush maintained the Mexico City Policy, vetoed bills to expand government funding for abortion, and appointed the best living Supreme Court justice. He even stood by Clarence Thomas through that “high-tech lynching.” Bush’s broader domestic agenda had fewer encouraging moments.
George H.W. Bush is best remembered for saying, then eating, six words: “Read my lips. No new taxes.” In his eulogy, former Senator Alan Simpson remembered Bush explaining why he broke his defining campaign promise. At the time, Bush said he accepted tax hikes in order to tackle “the deficit problem.” Bush told Simpson, “When the really tough choices come, it’s the country, not me.”
There’s one problem: The deficit problem got worse each year. The Democrats never reined in spending, and Bush added $1.03 trillion to the national debt—the fourth largest amount amassed by any president. (All three presidents who amassed a higher deficit served two terms.) Meanwhile, the tax increases probably helped trigger the recession—and undeniably lit the electoral fuse—that turned him out of office.
That was not Bush’s only policy contortion. He flip-flopped on the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which he originally vetoed and called “a quota bill.” It branded employers guilty until proven innocent and made it easier to sue based on “disparate impact.” These measures backfired, making industries less likely to hire minorities.
Similarly his landmark bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act, reduced employment for disabled people by eight percent in less than a decade.
Thanks to his update of the Clean Air Act in 1990, the government imposed draconian regulations on anyone who built on newly ubiquitous “wetlands.” (However, he was the last president not to federalize any additional land as “national monuments.”)
The regulations those bills and the rest of Bush’s free-spending presidency spawned cost the average household between $8,388 and $17,134 in 1992 dollars.
Bush’s domestic record has never been without critics. However, he is widely credited as a foreign policy expert whose steady hand oversaw the end of the Cold War and a new, rules-based global order. These commendations also lack nuance.
Bush’s memorialists gave him high marks for managing the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they ignore perhaps the most defining failure of Bush’s foreign policy “vision thing”: George Bush did not want the USSR to collapse; he wanted a cohesive Soviet bloc to act as our newly deputized global partner.
Bush wrote in his memoir A World Transformed that he hoped the fall of the Berlin Wall left in place “a politically strong Gorbachev and an effectively working central structure” in the Kremlin. Ohio Northern University history professor Robert Waters elaborated that Bush envisioned the U.S. and the “Soviet Union working closely together to promote stability in Europe and the Middle East as the linchpin of Bush’s New World Order.”
For that to happen, he had to close the escape hatches. Bush traveled to Ukraine in August 1991, shortly after it announced it would hold a referendum leaving the Soviet Union. “Freedom is not the same as independence,” he said. “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” The address, written by Condoleezza Rice, came to be known as the “Chicken Kiev” speech. The Ukrainian people ignored him and embraced national sovereignty, a decision for which they continue to pay an exacting price. President Bush did not recognize Ukrainian independence for nearly a month, burying the announcement on Christmas Day. By that time it had already been diplomatically recognized by two dozen nations including Russia, Cuba and Kyrgyzstan.
The forth-first president maintained a similar policy throughout the Eastern bloc. Bush’s hostility to independence movements—and whitewashing of Gorbachev’s slaughters of civilians—made anti-Communist leaders in the Baltics accuse him of “appeasement.” He tried to keep the simmering animosities of Croatians, Serbs, and Kosovars boiling in a united Yugoslavia until civil war broke out. Reagan’s ambassador to Romania, David Funderburk, literally wrote a book on Bush’s “betrayal” of freedom fighters behind the Iron Curtain.
Bush, a former China envoy under President Nixon, had big plans for Beijing when he came into the Oval Office.
On June 4, 1989, Chinese tanks killed 10,000 civilians peacefully protesting for democracy in Tiananmen Square. A jolted international community applied economic and diplomatic sanctions, and showed the desire to premise Chinese economic development upon its respect for human rights.
Yet immediately after the massacre, Bush sent Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger on a secret mission to Beijing to “assure a healthy relationship over time.” Though global sanctions led China to execute fewer political prisoners, Bush quietly vitiated U.S. sanctions until only a fig leaf remained. The one time world leaders effectively checked Chinese repression, Bush launched an end-run around their efforts.
His State Department assured that China maintained Most Favored Nation trading status. Revoking MFN, Eagleburger told Congress, “would severely damage the economic base of those forces generating pressure for further reform.”
Thanks in part to Bush’s Sinophilia, China sits poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s leading economy. Beijing persecutes political dissidents and religious minorities with unbridled fury. And Xi Jinping aspires to become president-for-life.
“Deng Xiaoping never forgot that after 1989 . . . Bush came to the rescue,” said one China expert.
Neither should we.
Despite his restraint when it came to the world’s leader communist powers, Bush had no problem using force—and he regarded neither the mission’s irrelevance to U.S. interests nor the Constitution as impediments.
The Founding Fathers vested the war-making power with Congress. But Bush placed troops in Panama without congressional approval, something he threatened to repeat in Iraq and Serbia. Even as a lame duck, Bush sent troops to Somalia on a humanitarian, nation-building mission—doing “God’s work”—that had nothing to do with America’s vital interests.
His crowning glory, Operation Desert Storm, took place in no small part because of his administration’s bureaucratic incompetence. Eight days before the invasion of Kuwait, diplomat April Glaspie assured Saddam Hussein that U.S. had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts” like Iraq’s “border disagreement with Kuwait.” Saddam considered this a green light.
Bush eventually got Congressional authorization for his (unnecessary) invasion. But he said he did not need it, because he already had a United Nations resolution. He even bragged later, “I didn’t have to get permission from some old goat in Congress to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.”
The war, Bush told Americans, would usher in “a New World Order,” in which “a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfill the promise and vision of the UN's founders.” Whatever he meant by that term, it smacked of Wilsonian globalism and diluted sovereignty. Since delegates drafted the UN Charter under the watchful eye of Alger Hiss, Americans have never wanted to live under its terms—nor do the strictures of the Constitution allow them to do so.
It would not be long before voters opted not to live under a Bush presidency, either.
Undue praise is the oxygen post-mortem tributes breathe. However, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s eulogy compared George Bush to Washington, Jefferson, and Reagan—and placed Bush a notch above them all. “No occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled, and more honorable,” he said.
Unfortunately, Bush’s critics were right: He lacked the will to fight.
He appointed David Souter to the Supreme Court, because Bush did not want a repeat of the Bork hearings.
He opposed defunding the NEA and opposed bills to end taxpayer funding of homoerotic or blasphemous “art,” because he didn’t want to be accused of “censorship.”
He signed a quota bill identical to one he had vetoed after the (short-lived) rise of David Duke.
And he almost threw out one of the few conservative lights in the administration: a committed social conservative and Christian named Dan Quayle. Insiders, including his own son, pressured Bush to replace Quayle with pro-choice, pro-Affirmative Action Colin Powell, or Dick Cheney. Ultimately, Bush’s cowardice foreclosed this option: Bush said he was afraid “the press would murder me.”
He ran his lackluster re-election bid the same way. The media had recast his Willie Horton ad as “racist,” so he abandoned crime as an issue. The media humiliated Dan Quayle for criticizing Murphy Brown and Pat Buchanan’s prophetic culture war speech at the Houston convention, so the Bush team abandoned those issues. “After the firestorm in the media and the counterattacks from the Clinton people, Bush’s campaign ran away from the social and cultural issues, and they didn’t have any other issues,” Buchanan explained.
In 1992, Bush earned the worst showing of any incumbent president since William Howard Taft. He opted to fight on the Democrats’ terrain and lost.
Reagan and Trump worked around the media. The Bushes let them set the narrative. However, there is one narrative Bush loyalists have tried to maintain for 26 years: that the blame for Bush’s (well-deserved) loss belongs to Buchanan and Ross Perot.
“The main difference” between 1984 and 1992 “was that Reagan was not challenged by someone in his own party,” said Bush’s former White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, still spinning for his old boss.
Of course no Republican challenged Reagan. No one needed to. He kept his promises, even the misguided ones.
Reasonable people can differ about Perot’s impact. But a 1998 study from the Cato Institute found that Perot increased Bush’s share of the vote by 6.4 percent. “Bush would have lost by an even larger margin in 1992 if not for” Perot, it concluded.
Bush wasn’t a weak candidate because Buchanan and Perot ran against him; Buchanan and Perot ran against him because he was a weak candidate.
Then Bush left office, and his personal grace could again come to the fore. To his credit, he never criticized his successors. He dedicated himself to natural disaster relief, his family, and occasional nonagenarian skydiving.
In retirement, Bush continued to manifest his sometimes liberal leanings. Bush not merely endorsed, but participated in, a same-sex “wedding” in 2013. And he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. As one Bush family biographer told CNN, “Donald Trump represented everything that the Bushes abhorred.” Trump’s Twitter feed offended the Bushes more than Hillary’s incompetence, corruption, megalomania, entitlement, and unwavering support for abortion-on-demand.
George Bush was a devoted family man, a kind friend, and a good manager of bureaucracies. But he stood on the wrong side of pivotal foreign and domestic policy issues. His legacy is that he left conservatives with stronger enemies, less time to fight them, and internal division about whether we should even try. His family and advisers left an imprint on the Republican Party that continues to harm both the GOP and the entire country.
The former Eastern Bloc nations survived by ignoring the advice President Bush and his supporters offered. Republicans would be wise to do the same.
For George Bush, the strife has ended.
Requiescat in pace.
Patrick Howard Flynn is a conservative columnist and journalist.
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