Politics & Policy

Stop Beating Around the Bush

Former President George H.W. Bush waves as he enters the second session of the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., September 2, 2008. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
George H. W. Bush's conservatism was compassionate and uncompromising.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the November 6, 1987, issue of National Review.

One afternoon in January of 1986, I arrived at the White House for a meeting with the President, as a member of a bi-partisan group of 11 congressmen assembled to plot a strategy for getting aid to the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance. Congressman Jack Kemp, my colleague and good friend, was already in the Cabinet Room, trying the President’s chair on for size, just as I and many others have done over the years. President Reagan wasn’t due for ten more minutes, so I knew this was the right opportunity to tell Jack about a decision I had made. I felt uneasy and a bit sad at what I had to say.

“Jack,” I began, “I believe that one day you will be sitting in that chair; but I don’t think it will be in 1989. I want you to know that I’ve endorsed George Bush for President.” Momentarily taken aback. Jack said quickly: “Bobby, don’t do this, they’ll just use you. They’re not really conservatives like us. Don’t do it.” But it was already done. About a month earlier, on December 17, 1985, in the Oval Office, I had privately told a very pleased President of my decision to go with his Veep. Is Jack Kemp right when he says George Bush is not really a conservative? Can a movement conservative such as Bob Dornan—a 1968, ’76, ’80, and ’84 Reagan delegate, an old-time Buckley-Goldwater Republican, the congressman that leftists in the House most love to hate—honestly find happiness with George Bush?

Well, it is nearly two years since I made the decision to endorse the Vice President, and I have no regrets. In fact, I am more convinced than ever that George Bush has the right stuff. Having spent time with him abroad, in Washington, and around the country, I have come to know George Bush as intelligent, decisive, indefatigable, committed, very good-humored, and, yes, conservative. I don’t agree with George on every detail of public policy, but then I don’t always agree with other conservatives, not even with favorites like Pat Buchanan or Bill Buckley (remember the Panama Canal!). Conservatives, after all, are allowed to have differences of opinion, and it is this constant internal debate that gives us the edge in waging the war of ideas.

George Bush may not be the ideal conservative candidate, but who out there is? Not Jack Kemp, who has angered many conservatives with his overtures to organized labor. Not Bob Dole, whose history indicates a willingness to accept tax increases. Not even Pat Robertson, who, like Jesse Jackson, carries the peculiar baggage of having given up the ministry for politics when the nation is short on good ministers and long on eager presidential candidates. What of Pete du Pont? Well, he has brought some superb conservative ideas to the campaign, but he is really a recent convert. Alexander Haig? Solid on defense and foreign affairs but not nearly enough economic or social policy experience.

Do not misunderstand me. The GOP is very lucky to have such a fine field of conservative candidates, and I could support any of them in good conscience. But the stakes in this election—the future of the political realignment launched by Ronald Reagan—are high, and we must choose the conservative candidate most likely to carry the day.

If the gains of the Reagan era are to be consolidated, the Republican nominee must be someone capable of holding together the somewhat disparate coalition that Reagan forged—conservative Democrats, blue-collar workers, independent moderates, GOP regulars, movement conservatives, and what I call “conservatarians,” or conservatives with a libertarian streak (you know the type—generally younger people who support lower taxes and a strong national defense, but have little or no interest in social issues).

As a veteran of some very difficult campaigns, I appreciate the enthusiasm many supply-siders feel for a Jack Kemp victory, as expressed by Jude Wanniski in the August 14 National Review. And with several months and many X factors to go, Kemp, Dole, du Pont, Haig, or Robertson could indeed emerge the victor. However, each of these conservative candidates appeals only to limited, though influential, segments of the conservative movement. Generally speaking, Kemp appeals to supply-siders and populists; Dole to pragmatic centrists; Robertson to traditional fundamentalists; Haig to military and foreign-affairs specialists; du Pont to government-reform conservatives.

There is no obvious heir to the mantle of Reagan, no Taft or Goldwater to rally around. However, I believe George Bush represents the Republican Party’s best hope for keeping that Reagan coalition together. Given his loyal service as Vice President, along with his unique record of broad government experience, consistent party support, and down-the-line conservative views, he is the logical choice.

Why, then, are some conservatives so hesitant to jump aboard the Bush bandwagon? Some complain that Bush lacks the passion that they have grown accustomed to seeing in conservative leaders. Others question the depth of his commitment to conservative principles. Still others, quite unfairly, attempt to demean him personally, belittling his earnest manner of speech, or hurling irrelevant epithets like “preppie” (a term they never apply to fellow Yalie William F. Buckley Jr.).

Bush in the past was open to criticism on one or two issues, but not now. 1980 is ancient history. People change. Remember, Ronald Reagan was once a New Deal Democrat. And James Burnham, one of NR‘s founding fathers, was a former Trotskyist.

The fact is that George Bush has always been a conservative, and it is about time that conservatives recognized him as such. He was a Goldwater delegate in 1964; he twice ran for the U.S. Senate from Texas as an unabashed conservative; and he compiled a solidly conservative voting record during his two terms in the House of Representatives (Bush’s career ADA rating is an honorable 6.5 per cent). For seven years as Vice President he has loyally supported the President’s conservative economic, social, defense, and foreign-policy agenda.

On key “litmus test” issues, Bush’s conservatism is uncompromising. He has gone on record as pledging to appoint pro-life judges who believe in judicial restraint. He strongly supported the appointment of Judge Bork and spoke forcefully for the O’Connor and Scalia appointments. Calling abortion the “most important moral question of the twentieth century,” Bush supports a constitutional amendment to reverse Roe v. Wade, and he opposes federal funding of abortion. He has called for an aggressive response to the AIDS epidemic, including widespread testing and AIDS education that reflects traditional values and personal responsibility. (No surprise when you get to know his lovely wife Barbara and the wonderful family they’ve raised).

The VP is strong on defense issues, especially the Strategic Defense Initiative. In the May graduation speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, Bush said, “In the long term, SDI will be an effective deterrent. . . . Isn’t it better, as we move forward in the nuclear age, to put weapons at risk instead of people?” As President, Bush would maintain the defense buildup that Reagan has begun; oppose efforts to strip the Commander-in-Chief of his ability to conduct covert activities: maintain an effective CIA; and continue assistance to freedom-fighters around the world, particularly in Nicaragua. (Just last month. Bush broke ranks with the Administration and publicly criticized the Arias peace plan, pledging that as President he would not leave the Contras “twisting in the wind.”)

Moreover, Bush is willing to confront Congress when it impinges on the President’s constitutional right to control U.S. foreign policy, something even Ronald Reagan has failed to do effectively. Bush, echoing Ollie North, recently told the American Legion that Congress has tied the President’s hands with “misguided attempts to micromanage our foreign policy.” Referring to a legal challenge to Reagan’s Persian Gulf policy brought by several left-wing congressmen. Bush asked, “What kind of wacked-out world is this where the President is taken to court every time he moves our troops?”

On the economic front, Bush supports a constitutional amendment to balance the budget; opposes tax increases (I have a letter from him pledging to hold the line against raising taxes or eliminating deductions); and advocates the line-item veto to help roll back congressional deficit spending. Arthur Laffer, the founder of supply-side economics, is one of Bush’s key advisors.

Richard Viguerie, a good friend whose skills have helped me over the years and whose political instincts I respect, recently told me that the most important thing conservatives have learned from the Reagan years is that what the man at the top thinks matters less than whom he appoints to policy-implementing positions. George Bush has said he will appoint movement conservatives to leadership positions in his Administration. He has also repeatedly said that he wants and needs movement conservatives’ support. It is in the movement’s best interests that we be there, on the inside from the beginning.

If conservatives still had doubts about George Bush’s “heart-of-hearts” loyalty to Ronald Reagan land conservative policies, then those doubts should have been dispelled by his performance during the Iran Contra imbroglio.

Remember, it was George Bush who showed conservatives how to defend their President against the liberal headhunters in Congress. I was there for his December 3, 1986 American Enterprise Institute speech, which came before the stirring call to arms by Pat Buchanan. You did not see George Bush running around the capital demanding scalps and congressional inquisitions as did some other leading Republicans, at least one of whom is now running for President. You did not see George Bush “heading for the tall grass” as George Schultz did (indeed Mr. Schultz has yet to come out). Instead, Bush—a veritable pit bull of conservative action—took the lead, and the heat. While acknowledging that mistakes were made, he defended the President’s overall policy, and especially the President’s right to make that policy. For his loyalty in defending the Administration, Bush was paid the ultimate compliment by radical Congressman Bruce Morrison (D., Conn.), who called for Bush’s impeachment.

At that time, the pundits assured us that the Bush campaign was headed for the intensive-care unit. It took true courage for Bush to hold steady, the kind of courage you would expect from a man who was one of our youngest World War II naval aviators and a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

From the beginning of the Iran-Contra controversy, George Bush had only kind words for Lieutenant Colonel Ollie North. (See the CBS 60 Minutes that aired coast to coast early last spring.) He did not wait until after North had won the hearts and minds of the American people. It would not surprise me if the story about the Vice President’s showdown with military leaders in El Salvador, which North volunteered during the hearings, was Ollie’s way of saying “thanks” to the Vice President. It is a story worth repeating.

If you recall, Colonel North testified that the Vice President met in San Salvador with leading members of El Salvador’s military, many of whom were believed to be involved in death-squad activities. These military men are always heavily armed, and the Secret Service tried to dissuade Mr. Bush from confronting them. But the Vice President pressed ahead anyway, telling them forcefully that death-squad activities would only serve to further the Communist cause in El Salvador. Colonel North called this “one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.” Coming from Ollie North, that says a lot. It should put an end to the “wimp factor” that has maliciously dogged the Vice President.

These are the reasons why I am completely comfortable with George Bush. It’s also why conservative leaders—including Barry Goldwater and Russell Kirk—are rapidly joining the ranks of his supporters. In my state of California, Bush is already ahead by a margin of 2 to I. The fact that George Bush once challenged Ronald Reagan is no longer sufficient reason to deny him the conservative support he has earned over these past seven years.

As a candidate, George Bush is certainly not without a flaw or two. Probably his salient problem is a trait that bespeaks a thoughtful mind, but is not necessarily the mark of a successful leader. Bush sometimes speaks in “shades of grey” instead of “black and white.” Dissecting shades of grey may be excellent for the lecture hall, but not for the political podium. A “but-on the-other-hand” approach leaves the voters feeling that they do not know where a candidate stands. Bush’s thoughtful demeanor may be one reason why many remain unaware of the firmness of his dedication to conservatism. A leader can’t linger forever in the grey areas. A courageous politician must be willing to take his stand, clearly and concisely, without apologies, as Ronald Reagan has always done.

Whether Bush’s public thoughtful ness has been a function of his keen intellect, of his respect for the sensitive position of a Vice President, or both, now that he is a presidential candidate it has become a liability. He must learn to reach a conclusion before he faces the public—to stop doing his thinking aloud. But I know it is a problem that Bush can, and will, conquer.

Not too long ago Bush addressed over seven hundred uncommitted Republicans at the Disneyland Hotel in Orange County, California. He spoke forcefully and unambiguously about the need to confront state-sponsored terrorism, and was rewarded by two standing ovations and frequent thunderous applause.

When the American people are finally asked to make their choice—an untested, inexperienced Democrat versus Ronald Reagan’s Vice President, former head of the GOP, director of the CIA, envoy to China, ambassador to the United Nations, and U.S. congressman—the decision will be easy. The Reagan years have been good ones for America. It is unlikely that American voters will again make the “Jimmy Carter mistake” of voting for an unknown without experience in either foreign or national affairs.

So why do some conservatives want to deal themselves out of a Bush White House by opposing a man who shares nearly all of their views? Perhaps it is a manifestation of what NR contributor Aram Bakshian has called the “Siamese Jellyfish Syndrome”: the way the conservative movement “breaks up into sticky, disagreeable bits of astringent gunk just when it seems on the verge of forming an effective, cohesive mass.”

It is important that all conservative leaders take a hard and fair look at the Vice President of the United States. He has certainly paid his dues and earned his current frontrunner status for the Republican nomination. Embracing Bush is absolutely essential to advancing the conservative agenda.

Robert K. Dornan — Robert K. Dornan was a Republican representative from California's 38th district.

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