Magazine | February 15, 2016, Issue

A Man in Full

(Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Jon Meacham (Random House, 864 pp., $35) The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H. W. Bush, by John H. Sununu (Broadside, 432 pp., $28.99)

American administrations don’t fall silent when their president leaves office. Just the opposite: Inauguration Day for the successor is the starting gun for memoirists and journalists-turned-historians.

The modern exception has been the presidency of George H. W. Bush. Yes, with his national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, the former chief executive co-authored a firsthand account of his making of foreign policy. And his secretary of state, James Baker, produced his own survey of the global scene in those years. But the full sweep of the Bush tenure has received only limited explanation and defense from those sympathetic to it. No longer.

In the second half of 2015, both former Bush chief of staff John Sununu and former Newsweek editor-in-chief Jon Meacham published volumes on Mr. Bush’s presidency. Each deserves a careful reading from those interested in understanding not just that period but our own. For if ever a presidency was an omega and an alpha — an end and a beginning — it was George H. W. Bush’s.

Meacham’s Destiny and Power is particularly noteworthy. Author of celebrated volumes on Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt, Meacham received full access to the 41st president’s diary and personal letters. Bush and members of his remarkable family also granted him extensive interviews, as did veterans of the former president’s official family and administration. The result is a judicious, fair, admiring, and yet genuinely, as the author calls it, “independent” work.

Meacham takes the reader into Bush’s thoughts and feelings both at the time of events and later, after reflection, in retirement. The sensation is of listening to an entirely candid inner voice — a voice that is, in turns, emotional and rational, sometimes self-critical, never self-congratulatory, and, so far as I could tell, never spinning the crowd.

We meet a statesman whose actions, whether we agree with them or not, are consistent with the highest and most honorable of our traditions. The man would fight hard for political office — as he did in the 1988 election — but would set politics aside for what he regarded as overriding national interests, as with the 1990 budget deal that violated his famous “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge and would lead, as he intuited at the time, to his 1992 electoral defeat.

It is clear from both Meacham’s and Sununu’s accounts that when Bush gave his word on tax increases, he intended to keep it. But shortly after he assumed office, the savings-and-loan crisis broke, changing circumstances dramatically. Much like the financial crisis of 2008–09, the tidal wave of S&L collapses was unforeseen until it hit in 1989. Also like the later financial crisis, the S&L debacle was rooted in residential-real-estate lending and the official determination — going back to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, if not the Roosevelt and Truman administrations — to maintain the national pace of home construction at all costs.

In the inflation of the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, thrift institutions had been whipsawed between low-interest, fixed-rate mortgages, which reflected the economic and regulatory environment of a prior era, and the Federal Reserve’s high-interest-rate policies for halting inflation. The Government Accountability Office ultimately estimated that taxpayers delivered over $124 billion to cover the deposit insurance and related costs.

These new expenses and the slowing of the economy that started in mid 1990 combined to accelerate the growth of the deficit alarmingly beyond what economists had predicted in 1987 and 1988. The Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress refused to engage in any budget discussions if taxes were off the table. Years later, Bush would tell Meacham he had intended to honor the no-new-taxes pledge, but said that “when you’re faced with . . . the practical reality, of shutting down the government or dealing with a hostile Congress, you get something done.”

Meacham’s most striking chapters cover the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this period, every utterance, every gesture, every glancing look from the American president had to be exactly right. It was essential to stand for the nation’s core values but not humiliate the foundering Soviets — and constantly to reassure the Soviets about peaceful U.S. intentions.

So, with British and French leaders skeptical if not vocally opposed, Bush proposed that, in Meacham’s words, NATO “shift its emphasis from a military alliance to a political one; shift its defense posture from ‘forward’ positions to more mobile units; open up conventional arms negotiations; and outline a ‘new NATO nuclear strategy.’” Following intense personal diplomacy, the Bush proposal prevailed. Then, immediately after NATO’s vote, the president sent a personal note to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “As you read the NATO declaration, I want you to know that it was written with you importantly in mind. . . . I hope [it] will persuade you that NATO can and will serve the security interests of Europe as a whole.” Gorbachev, writes Meacham, “got the message.”

It would be hard for anyone to come away from this graceful and penetrating account without wondering whether there was any eligible person in any quarter of American life who could have met the epoch-shaping demands of the presidency in that time half so well as George H. W. Bush — or, indeed, have met them at all. The same can be said for the combination of strength, restraint, and diplomatic virtuosity he displayed in reversing the Iraqi seizure of Kuwait, establishing a global post–Cold War norm against territorial aggression that stood for a quarter century.

From his experience in World War II, to his work in the oil business (which gave him a firsthand understanding of the global role of oil, which was a pillar of the Soviet economy), to his heading of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing after the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China, to his service as CIA director and then as Reagan’s vice president in the years leading up to the Soviet collapse, his entire life pointed to that mission. If ever there was an indispensable man at an essential time, it was he.

John Sununu’s The Quiet Man provides useful backup to Meacham’s account. From Inauguration Day until five days past the administration’s third anniversary in office, he was a central player in most major events of the presidency. He left the White House with a reputation for arrogance, and much of Washington muttered “Good riddance.” Yet, though he doesn’t appear to realize it even now, Sununu had taken on a job that was almost preordained to lead to that outcome.

After the precedents of Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, there had developed separate Democratic and Republican ways of organizing the White House. Democrats preferred the FDR model, in which all cabinet members and senior staff enjoyed more or less direct access to the president. Republicans followed Ike’s example, and had a strong chief of staff who controlled the personnel and information flows into and out of the Oval Office.

Democratic administrations gained reputations as unruly free-for-alls, Republican ones as disciplined and efficient. But from Eisenhower’s Sherman Adams to Reagan’s second-term Donald Regan, most GOP chiefs of staff left their posts in the same way Sununu did — under a cloud, to one degree or another forced out.

The reason was not that they were bad at their jobs but, generally, that they were too good. For, as with Sununu, an essential part of their role was to say no, which meant to make many of the nation’s most powerful figures angry with them rather than with their boss. Let’s put it this way: Having every person of substance in official Washington believing that you personally nixed presidential support for his or her most cherished policy chew toy is not a prescription for job security.

One of the few exceptions to this GOP-chiefs-of-staff-as-political-cannon-fodder rule was Ronald Reagan’s James Baker. But in addition to having extraordinary political skills, Baker was never in a position to block determined players from getting to the president. In the first Reagan term, each member of the “troika” of Baker, counselor to the president Edwin Meese, and deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver could open the Oval Office’s doors — as, in a pinch, could national-security adviser (and subsequent interior secretary) William Clark and CIA director William Casey. Sununu’s position was far stronger than Baker’s and so, over time, whatever his personal qualities, untenable.

As they come through in his book, those personal qualities are not what the reader expects. Far from the West Wing warlord of legend, Sununu appears, yes, smart and loyal, but also, in places, myopic and overawed by his chief.

For example, while a pre-campaign consultation with governors that the future chief of staff organized for Vice President Bush was no doubt useful, it is unlikely that it was as formative to the administration’s ultimate agenda as Sununu believes. The future president had behind him years of schooling in every aspect of domestic and international policy. Looking to the coming campaign, he was receiving advice from the widest possible range of sources, including, for example, future Council of Economic Advisers chairman Michael Boskin, and experts at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and other universities and think tanks throughout the country. Sununu seems unaware of this vast swirl of activity.

Then, too, early in the term, James Baker advised him that working the press was essential to his job. The president took another view, telling him to shun the media. Sununu accepted this instruction without question rather than enlisting Baker’s support in reversing it. Some of the saddest passages in either volume report Bush’s anger, late in his term, about the administration’s treatment in the media and his frustration with the failure to communicate his message.

Sununu is clear-eyed, though, about the dysfunctions of the White House after he left. His conclusion — in which, Meacham suggests, Bush concurred then (and presumably does now), and which I endorse — was that whatever the issues that led to his departure, the price of his going far outweighed the benefit.

But neither Meacham nor Sununu quite grasps the reasons Bush lost the 1992 race. Neither seems to appreciate the essential role that Ronald Reagan played in the 1988 campaign, ensuring by his energetic support that the coalition that elected him would unite behind his vice president. The breaking of the no-new-taxes pledge came after almost a year and a half of probably unintended but nevertheless widely noted signals that the Bush White House did not respect or even particularly like parts of that coalition.

Sununu (though, according to Meacham, not Bush) was surprised when House minority leader Newt Gingrich refused to sign on to the 1990 bipartisan tax-and-budget deal. He seems not to have understood that a revolt was under way in the party throughout the country. Gingrich was a messenger, and his message was that a major segment of the party’s voters no longer trusted the administration they had helped to elect. Early in 1992, this alienation gave rise to Pat Buchanan’s candidacy, and later to Ross Perot’s.

Bush might still have been reelected had it not been for the economic downturn that started early that election year. Many of the disaffected saw the sagging GDP as evidence that the tax hike had been misguided. In fact, in the budget deal he initially cut, Bush had held to the same pro-growth line as Ronald Reagan, blocking marginal-rate increases. Only after that package lost to a GOP Right–Democratic Left coalition in the House was he — unable to prevail owing to his splintered congressional party — forced to accept the higher-marginal-rates agenda of the by-then-united Democrats. 

Conservative critics may have been partially right about the impact of the budget deal on the economy, but only partially. For what neither they nor the administration nor anyone else appears to have grasped is that, as a result of negotiations among major central banks, economy-dampening changes were under way in international financial regulation. These changes were intended to make the global banking system less susceptible to panics. Inadvertently, though, this “Basel I Accord” — named after the Swiss city in which it was hammered out — ended up restricting lending to the very category of entities that had driven GDP, technology, and job growth in the United States for at least the prior two decades: small and medium-sized businesses. As implementation of the accord got under way, the U.S. economy started to falter.

Jon Meacham and John Sununu have both produced readable, instructive, interesting accounts of the George H. W. Bush presidency; Meacham’s book is also a full biography of the 41st president. Both volumes are rightly admiring of one of the most admirable men of our age. Neither may provide the last word on the topic — but it would be hard to find better (almost) first words.

– Mr. Judge is the managing director of the White House Writers Group and the chairman of the Pacific Research Institute.

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