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Meacham on George H. W. Bush: ‘Would Say and Do Almost Anything to Amass Power’

Jon Meacham’s biography of George H.W. Bush isn’t published until tomorrow, but advance copies have already made news.  In Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president unloads on two of his son’s closest advisers – Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld — for being “hard asses.” 

But the book — written with the complete cooperation of George H.W. Bush — has other insights and revelations. To me an intriguing part is the discussion about Bush’s infamous reversal on his “Read My Lips, No New Taxes” pledge – a vow that went a long way to convincing voters he would follow a Reaganite course in office. Meacham is clearly favorably disposed toward Bush, but he makes important concessions about his subject’s weaknesses. He told NPR’s Robert Siegel last Friday:

(Bush) would say and do almost anything to amass power, but once he had that power, he tended to do the right thing. And because of the nature of the Republican party as he was coming along, he had a right wing that was forever growing when he was essentially more of a moderate temperament. It was never the best fit for Bush in the base of the party.

NPR’s Siegel asked Meacham last week that it was “hard for me that (Bush) ever thought he could really get a budget deal without imposing some kind of tax increase. Was it again a Faustian bargain where you do one thing to get power and then act differently once you have it?”  Meacham responded:

“Rather than a Faustian bargain, I would argue that it was Machiavellian – that he thought if he were to take positions that he might not particularly feel strongly about in order to amass power, that was not cynical but instrumental.”

What Bush does make clear in his diary entires is that — like his first patron, Richard Nixon — he was far more interested in foreign than in domestic affairs.  Even before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Bush wrote in his diary: “I like wrestling with the foreign policy agenda. I don’t like the negotiations on the budget.”

After Saddam’s invasion — which came five weeks after the tax pledge was violated in the budget talks with Democrats at Andrews Air Force Base — Bush was stuck getting an unpopular budget deal through Congress at the same time he was planning to oust the Iraqi dictator from Kuwait.  

Newt Gingrich, who was leading the GOP rebels in the House fighting the Bush tax increases, told Meacham he offered Bush a way out. He suggested Bush should suspend the budget negotiations and go to the country in the mid-term elections of November 1990 offering voters a choice. If they voted Republican they were against breaking the tax pledge and for spending restraint instead. If they voted Democratic, he would proceed with the budget blueprint.

Bush rejected Gingrich’s idea, saying he wasn’t interested in pursuing political gamesmanship. Gingrich believed that decision helped cost Bush his 1992 re-election bid, in which he suffered the worst drop a presidential candidate has from one election to the next since Herbert Hoover. Bush won 54 percent of the vote in 1988. In 1992, with Ross Perot splitting the fiscal conservative vote, he won only 37 percent.

Grover Norquist, who designed the “no new taxes” pledge that Bush signed in 1988 as head of Americans for Tax Reform, says that while he respects Bush, he fundamentally misread the politics and economics of the times and the devastating impact that breaking the pledge would have on him.  He told me in an interview:

“George H. W. Bush, like Nixon, acted as if the presidency was about foreign policy and not American economic power. Both damaged the economy by raising taxes and allowing regulations to run amok and that weakened their hand in foreign policy. Reagan understood the need to cut taxes and limit government to create a strong economy and then he had the power and political backing to win the Cold War.” 

George H.W. Bush is a good man and an admirable patriot. But when it came to breaking his “Read My Lips” pledge the real political gamesmanship involved was in cynically promising something he didn’t believe in.

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