Politics & Policy

George H. W. Bush, R.I.P.

Former President George Bush acknowledges cheers after arriving with his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa. July 31, 2000. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

Some moments define a man, a type, and an era. One such occurred when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson addressed the 1942 graduating class of Andover. Stimson was no stranger to power or to privilege. Before serving in FDR’s cabinet, he had been Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state and William Howard Taft’s secretary of war. He was an alumnus of Andover (and of Yale, and of Skull and Bones). From these heights he told the young men before him that, even though Pearl Harbor had been attacked only six months earlier, they should complete their educations before they enlisted. George H. W. Bush ignored him and reported for duty to train as a Navy pilot that August. His preppy handbook was his flight manual. So the WASPocracy intersected with the Greatest Generation.

Bush served in the Pacific (literally: on one of his missions he was shot down). After the war he, like Stimson, went to Yale, where he was tapped for Bones. But what illuminated him more than this John O’Hara catalogue of caste markers was that moment of youthful decision. No one who knew him, or even observed him honestly from afar, could doubt his devotion to duty, and to doing the right thing when it was presented in clear and urgent terms.

Two fruits of that devotion marked his presidency. He saw the Cold War through to its conclusion, as first the Berlin Wall then the Soviet Union itself crumbled; and when Saddam Hussein one day simply ingested Kuwait, he assembled the necessary forces and drove the tyrant back. His rhetorical peak was a relatively minor moment. One of Saddam’s distractions, as the avenging army assembled, was to lob missiles at Israel. Helen Thomas, the doyenne of the White House press corps, asked Bush a slyly anti-Semitic question whose premise was that the Israelis would react excessively. Bush responded with incredulity and indignation: They were being attacked. Bull’s-eye.

It soon became fashionable to disdain the Gulf War, either because it left Saddam in power until the Iraq War toppled him, or because we should never have become embroiled in the Arab world in the first place. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and its remedies. Should we despise the Revolution because we still fought the War of 1812?

Bush’s métier was politics, where the path of duty is often obscure, and chances to do the right thing must be made by one’s self. Bush was a competitor, keen to win, and he eventually won the biggest prize of all, but his upward path was wobbly. He left his northeastern roots to make his way in Texas, first as a Goldwaterite, then as a moderate Houstonian; next (running against Ronald Reagan) as a relatively fresh face, then as Reagan’s loyal veep. His conscientious performance of the last role enabled him to win the 1988 GOP nomination and the election, but wobbling resumed.

One emblematic problem was his rhetoric. The Helen Thomas moments did not come often. I had firsthand experience of it. When Bush ran for president in 1980, I profiled him for NR and rather unkindly wrote that he dropped pauses in his speeches like moving men leaving a piano on a landing of a staircase. If anyone in Bush world read that, they forgave it, because when Chris Buckley, his main vice-presidential speechwriter, suggested taking me on as an auxiliary for the 1982 off-year elections, I was taken. One of the vice-president’s main jobs, since Nixon served Ike, has been to stump for candidates. My job for Bush was to write the stump speech and modify it as needed. (When Millicent Fenwick was the candidate of the moment, I cut the graf on abortion.) Bush’s habits had not improved. I sat in the back of one hall, watching him address a General Convention of the Episcopal Church (his church). This required a speech specially written for the occasion; Bush had suggested a few changes in Air Force Two on the way. Though he was hanging with his homies, he knew they were to his left; he wanted badly to make a strong case, and his earnestness counted for much. But, as he always did with a text, he went into improvised loop-the-loops, and I sat, thinking, You haven’t brought a verb, and now you won’t be able to find one . . .

The speaking style, I concluded, reflected his thinking style. Some of his policy positions were rock-solid, though for Bushian reasons. However much he might defer on the hustings to the Fenwicks of his party, he himself had become strongly pro-life. One of his sons had adopted children of his own. If their birth mothers had aborted them, Bush reasoned, he would miss them as grandkids.

But without some personal stake, or the impetus he had been given by the Axis or would get from Communism or Saddam, he could seem lost. At the 1988 convention that first nominated him to run for president, he had promised never to raise taxes, in a strident phrase that sounded cribbed from a Schwarzenegger movie: “Read my lips: No new taxes!” Then, as president, he raised them. Reagan, in similar circumstances as governor of California, had shown aw-shucks candor. Bush, badgered by reporters while jogging, retorted, “Read my hips!” Politicians who pay such scant regard to their own word that they cannot even trouble to break it gracefully are asking for comeuppance.

He spent his post-presidential years with Barbara and with his ever-growing family. He sky dove, and went on tsunami- and hurricane-relief missions assigned by his president son. He wrote, as he had all his political years, hundreds and hundreds of personal notes to his myriad acquaintances, who were either friends or made by his courtesy to consider themselves so.

Bush was by nature a captain, the ideal executor or second-in-command. Now he, like the kings, has departed. We find our presidents in stories by V. S. Naipaul, or Tom Wolfe. Dead at 94, R.I.P.

— Richard Brookhiser


The Latest