The Corner

Politics & Policy

‘What Did That Mean? Does Anyone Know?’

George H. W. Bush delivers his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans. (George H. W. Bush Presidential Library)

Sometimes, when people attack something you love, you’re reminded of how much you love it. That happened to me last night, as I was reading about President Trump’s latest rally. I refer to Bush the Elder’s concept of civil society as “a thousand points of light.”

In his rally, Trump knocked both Bush and John McCain, and had tender, defensive words about Vladimir Putin. “You know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine.”

I think of a mnemonic that music students learn, for the lines of the treble clef: “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” (In Britain, this tends to be “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.”)

Trump also said, “What the hell was that, by the way, ‘thousand points of light’? What did that mean? Does anyone know? I know one thing: ‘Make America Great Again,’ we understand. Putting America first, we understand. ‘Thousand points of light,’ I never quite got that one.”

I have no doubt. In his 1988 convention speech, accepting the Republican presidential nomination, then–vice president Bush spoke of his outlook on life and America and society. He said,

An election that’s about ideas and values is also about philosophy, and I have one.

At the bright center is the individual. And radiating out from him or her is the family, the essential unit of closeness and of love. . . .

From the individual to the family to the community, and then on out to the town, the church, and the school, and then further on out to the county, the state, and the nation — each doing only what it does well and no more. And I believe that power must always be kept close to the individual, close to the hands that raise the family and run the home.

Bush proceeded to speak of “the idea of community — a beautiful word with a big meaning, though liberal Democrats have an odd view of it.” He continued,

They see community as a limited cluster of interest groups, locked in odd conformity. And, in this view, the country waits passive while Washington sets the rules. But that’s not what community means, not to me.

For we’re a nation of community, of thousands and tens of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor-union, neighborhood, regional, and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary, and unique.

This is America: the Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah, the Disabled American Veterans, the Order of Ahepa, the Business and Professional Women of America, the union hall, the Bible-study group, LULAC, Holy Name — a brilliant diversity spreading like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

Does government have a place? Yes. Government is part of the nation of communities, not the whole, just a part.

And I don’t hate government. A government that remembers that the people are its master is a good and needed thing.

And I respect old-fashioned common sense and have no great love for the imaginings of the social planners. You see, I like what’s been tested and found to be true.

That is a profound statement of conservatism — not conservatism as people see it today, necessarily, but an old and deep conservatism.

By the way, did you notice Bush’s use of the word “diversity” — “a brilliant diversity” — wresting this excellent word, and even more excellent concept, from its abusers and would-be monopolists?

Ever since 1988, I have used the concept of “a thousand points of light” (always carefully footnoting it, just so you know!). I have often applied it to conservative groups before which I speak. I did this just the other month, when speaking to a dinner of the Mackinac Center, in Michigan — one of my favorite points of light (and not just because it’s in my home state). The center’s slogan, or watchword, is “Advancing liberty and opportunity.”

Something occurs to me, something slightly shocking: People who were born in 1988, the year George Bush gave that convention speech, are now 30 years old. Thirty! If you have the time — no matter what age you are — you may wish to read the speech, here. There is much food for thought in it, and the issues it addresses are ever relevant.

In 1988, Republicans constantly knocked Democrats for being unsure about America’s leadership role in the world. For being hesitant about it, if not hostile to it. Today, the partisan lines are not so clear (and the world changes, to be sure, as do perceptions of national interest). In a once-famous passage from his speech, Bush said,

What it all comes down to is this: My opponent’s view of the world sees a long slow decline for our country, an inevitable fall mandated by impersonal historical forces. But America is not in decline. America is a rising nation.

He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. And I see America as the leader, a unique nation with a special role in the world. And this has been called the American Century because, in it, we were the dominant force for good in the world. We saved Europe, cured polio, went to the moon, and lit the world with our culture.

And now we’re on the verge of a new century, and what country’s name will it bear? I say it will be another American century.

Our work is not done; our force is not spent.

Are these words true? True today? That ought to be the subject of major debate.

One thing Americans should debate, intensely, is whether NATO is in the American interest. To President Trump, the alliance is clearly not in America’s interest, only in Europe’s. When he talks, he leaves no doubt about what he believes. At his rally last night, he said,

So we have $151 billion in trade deficits with the EU, and on top of that they kill us with NATO. They kill us. So we pay 4 percent of a huge GDP — which got a lot bigger since I became your president. Germany, which is the biggest country of the EU, European Union — Germany pays 1 percent. One percent. And I said, “You know, Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you and it means a lot more to you than protecting us because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.”

There is no NATO kitty, incidentally. There is no pool of funds to which nations contribute. When Trump says, for example, “We pay 4 percent,” he is talking about overall U.S. defense spending. Does he think we should spend less on defense? Do Republicans? That is a debate — another debate — we might have. At any rate, the spending of NATO members is not pooled. Each nation is supposed to provide for its own defense, and coalesce. (The Europeans have been terrible about spending — derelict, even. President Obama used to slam them, and others, as “free-riders.”) At a 2014 summit, after Putin annexed Crimea and started war in the Donbass, members of the alliance committed to a goal: Each nation would spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense in ten years, i.e., by 2024.

Be that as it may: Is NATO in the U.S. interest? For generations, leaders of both parties have thought so, based on the experience of two world wars and a cold war. If the answer is now no — we ought to be plain about that, and stop pussy-footin’ around (to borrow a phrase from George Wallace).

Our incumbent president is already wobbly on Article 5 — actually, not wobbly, but clear: “You know, Angela, I can’t guarantee it.”

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