I was 17 in 1992, and that year’s presidential campaign was my first vivid lesson that the news media could take sides and do so in such a profoundly unfair, inaccurate way.
Maybe Bill Clinton deserved to win the presidency that year. Republicans had held the White House for twelve years, and perhaps the country was ready for a change. But we look back on George H.W. Bush’s presidency and it’s mind-boggling that 1992 was considered “hard times” and that Bush was perceived by so many — particularly those in the media and cultural influencers — as some sort of bumbling, hapless, miserable failure of a president.
America’s unemployment rate had peaked in June 1992 at 7.8 percent, but it was declining by autumn. On the campaign trail, Bill Clinton described a struggling, desperate America: “Unemployed workers who’ve lost not only their jobs but their pensions, their health care, and even their homes. Laid-off defense workers who now make their living driving cabs. Elderly couples whose refrigerators are bare because so much of their monthly Social Security check has to go for prescription drugs. Middle-class families everywhere who’ve taken second jobs to make ends meet.” H. Ross Perot declared in his book, “Unless we take action now, our nation may confront a situation similar to the Great Depression — and maybe even worse.” Of course, we know now that the personal computer revolution and the birth of the dot-coms were just around the corner.
Yes, Bush had conceded and agreed to tax increases, but he was given no credit for this by those who supported higher taxes, either the Democrats or the media. For Republicans, the lesson was clear: Raising taxes, ever, anywhere, was a sucker’s game, where you compromise with the Left and then they use that compromise as a tool against you.
Bush’s domestic agenda was nothing to sneeze at — the Americans with Disabilities Act, the amended Clean Air Act, the beginnings of NAFTA, the resolution of the Savings and Loan crisis, an expansion of skills-based legal immigration. In foreign policy, we look at the way Bush handled the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the end of Manuel Noriega’s thuggery in Panama, the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — it was a golden age for American influence in the world.
Yet through the lens the 1992 campaign coverage, Bush was a hapless stumblebum. Bill Clinton accused Bush of cozying up to Chinese dictators – and then did the same thing. Clinton criticized Bush for not keeping his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — and then did the same thing. Clinton avoided taking a position on NAFTA until October.
The 1992 presidential election was the first one featuring MTV’s “Rock the Vote” campaign, complete with commercials of Madonna warning she would “give you a spanking” if you didn’t vote. The message of that effort was not too subtle – while MTV was technically merely urging you to vote, there wasn’t much doubt about which candidate they wanted you to vote for — the younger guy who wore shades and played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show. Bill Clinton did a 90-minute friendly interview with MTV — and in a bit of ironic foreshadowing, declared that he believed Anita Hill had been sexually harassed.
The choice couldn’t be clearer — the young cool guy was the obvious choice, up against the old fuddy-duddy and that crazy little guy from down in Texas. Bush’s politeness was reinterpreted as being stodgy and stiff; his experience was reinterpreted as being old and behind the times; his family was a symbol of wealth and privilege and disconnect from middle America — labels rarely applied to, say, the Kennedys.
Former Texas governor Ann Richards famously snickered of Bush, “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” Right, right, he was the kind of privileged snob who volunteered for the U.S. Navy at age 18 during wartime, became a naval aviator before he was 19, flew 58 combat missions, was shot down and survived, and won the Distinguished Flying Cross and three air medals. What a jerk, right?
Evan Thomas now writes that he regrets labeling Bush a “wimp” on the cover of Newsweek. Yeah, no Shinola, Sherlock. Labeling Bush a wimp should have been instantly rejected, as absurd as calling Bill Clinton “monogamous.”
The irony is that once Bush lost his presidential race, he became . . . well, kind of cool, in a crazy-grandpa kind of way. When Dana Carvey returned to Saturday Night Live to guest host, former president Bush did a cameo “interrupting” Carvey and insisting he had never said “nah gah dah,” an exaggerated version of “not gonna do it.” Bush kept freaking out his Secret Service protection by insisting upon jumping out of airplanes every few years. He wore his crazy socks and when one of the sons of his Secret Service detail members was fighting leukemia, Bush shaved his head in solidarity. Whenever there was a disaster or good cause that needed fundraising, Bush would not be far away.
Our nasty, cynical, partisan media has misjudged and been too critical of a lot of famous figures over the years. But perhaps Bush — our big-hearted, kind, even-tempered, principled, and sometimes delightfully-goofy president had it worst out of anyone.