George H.W. Bush’s Misunderstood Presidency

The late 41st U.S. president’s prudence was once derided as the wimp factor, but it has aged well.

U.S. President George H.W. Bush in the White House on Sept. 27, 1991 (Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President George H.W. Bush in the White House on Sept. 27, 1991 (Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)

I first covered George H.W. Bush on the other side of the world—and at what was almost certainly the least auspicious moment of his still-underappreciated presidency. He had just vomited into the lap of the prime minister of Japan.

It was January 1992. The Gulf War was won along with the Cold War—the Soviet Union had been formally dissolved only a month before—but there was little American triumphalism in the air. That would come later. The U.S. economy was mired in the recession that would cost Bush a second term ten months hence, and the 41st president knew that despite his victory over Saddam Hussein he needed to show more leadership on the economy. Japan-bashing was then at its height and the rallying phrase “American jobs for American workers” had captured the zeitgeist. “The Cold War is over, and Japan won,” Sen. Paul Tsongas cracked during the ’92 election campaign.

American cars weren’t selling well abroad, especially in Japan, so Bush led the Big Three automakers to Tokyo. But the mission ended in failure—indeed, it was the beginning of the end of Bush’s one-term presidency. The most enduring image to come out of that unhappy Tokyo summit was that of the tall, patrician Bush gasping for breath in the arms of Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa after throwing up all over him at a state dinner. (Bush had gotten dehydrated playing tennis and had fainted during the toasts.) It appeared to sum up the mood of national dyspepsia and exhaustion.

To a large extent, the presidency of George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at age 94, is still remembered this way, as a strange and somewhat weak four-year interlude between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, between the end of the Cold War and the start of the “New World Order” (as Bush called it). But it is an unfair appraisal. Bush’s supposed “weakness” proved to be an enlightened prudence of the highest order that did much to steady the transition between eras and ensure American dominance and global stability.

Bush is remembered for his reserved, WASPy persona—one that led the comic Dana Carvey to lampoon him relentlessly on Saturday Night Live (“Wouldn’t be prudent!”). It also led my former magazine, Newsweek, to sum him up notoriously with the cover line: “Fighting ‘The Wimp Factor’” (a slight the Bush family never forgave, which is not surprising given that Bush senior was a World War II hero).

Bush is remembered for his victory in the first Iraq War, yes, but also for deciding to end hostilities after 100 hours and not go into Baghdad. That was seen by many as meek at the time, and his eldest son, George W. Bush, was said to blame his father’s defeat in ’92 on his excessive caution. As Saddam hung on to power, Bush senior spent the next years trying to justify his decision. “We’re going to be an occupying power—America in an Arab land—with no allies at our side. It would have been disastrous,” Bush explained to Gulf War veterans in 1999.

He was correct, of course, in his prudence. It was a piece of advice his son, who was working for him at the time of that decision, later didn’t heed, to W.’s everlasting grief—and America’s. It may well be that Bush junior’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq in pursuit of “democratic transformation”—at a time when the job against al Qaeda in Afghanistan was unfinished—was the worst strategic misdirection in the nation’s history. His father appeared to divine that possibility as well, having planted an essay in the Wall Street Journal in the summer before the 2003 invasion urging W. not to go in. While the op-ed was ostensibly written by Bush’s former national security advisor (and alter ego) Brent Scowcroft, it is widely believed that Bush senior signed off on the essay.

“An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken,” it concluded.

Those words stand as a virtual epitaph for the disastrous 15 years that have followed.

Bush senior is also remembered with suspicion by conservative hawks—and he was always far too moderate for conservatives—for the way he handled the end of the Cold War. As the old Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself swiftly collapsed, Bush and Scowcroft again counseled caution. This was no time for Reaganite victory speeches; the transition from the Cold War had to be “managed.” For good reason: There were thousands of nuclear weapons spread through these imploding Soviet republics. The result was Bush’s push to slow down, rather than speed up, democratic transformation, and to try to work with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as his democratic successor, Boris Yeltsin, to avoid chaos that could lead to civil war and dangerous weapon of mass destruction proliferation.

Once again, the hawks were outraged. In a speech in Ukraine on Aug. 1, 1991, as Ukrainians were getting ready to vote on a referendum to withdraw from the Soviet Union, Bush cautioned against “suicidal nationalism.” New York Times columnist William Safire called it the “Chicken Kiev” speech, and once again Bush was labeled, and lamented, as a too-prudent fellow without “vision.”

And yet as the decades passed, this too came to look far more prescient than excessively prudent. After Bush senior came two decades of American triumphalism—which began, arguably, not with Reagan or a Republican president but with Democrat Bill Clinton’s decision to push NATO right up against Russia’s borders. The Clinton administration also foisted a lot of supercilious free-market advice on Moscow in the early ’90s—the era of “privatization” (ordinary Russians called it “grabitization”), much of which went awry and opened the door to control of the economy by oligarchs. All of this rampaging certitude—NATO expansion, Washington’s simplistic “end of history” message about the wonders of democratic capitalism—has clearly incited a backlash and a great deal of Russian suspicion about Western intentions. This has contributed, in turn, to the consolidation of power by Vladimir Putin under the banner of Russian nationalism, which he has used to justify his seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.

Indeed, as he planned his interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Putin may have had reason to think it was payback time after perceived U.S. involvement in the 2014 Ukraine elections—when then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was caught on tape appearing to manipulate candidates. Putin may also have been thinking about Russia’s own elections in 2011 and 2012, when U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations under the direction of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised anti-Putin demonstrations.

Perhaps a little less self-righteousness from Washington, and a little more solicitousness of the George H.W. Bush variety, might have been in order.

Above all, what distinguished George H.W. Bush was political courage. With a few exceptions, he refused to taint policy with politics (though his Willie Horton ad in the 1988 election campaign against Michael Dukakis is one exception—it played to American racism and fear in ways that have become all too familiar). Just as he bravely took on the hawks over Iraq and the Soviet Union—and proved to be right—he  defied political peer pressure on domestic policy, going back to his challenge to Reagan in the 1980 primary campaign, when he mocked the tax-cutting fervor of the supply-siders as “voodoo economics.” (He was right about that too.)

And Bush was always honest enough to second-guess himself. He knew that, as he once awkwardly said, a popular president needs “the vision thing.” He knew people said he’d won only a partial victory in the Gulf War, leaving Saddam in place and abandoning the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq—and he often lamented himself that he’d made the wrong decision. He knew he was going to be in deep political trouble for flip-flopping on taxes, having pledged not to raise them (“Read my lips!” Bush declared, to his enduring regret) and then raising them anyway. In that arena as well, he was only doing what he thought was right: tackling the huge Reagan deficit.

Above all, Bush senior seemed all too ready to see the world as gray rather than black and white. Though he was a man of principle, he appeared to lack a sense of certainty.

But, the truth is, the world is mostly gray. And one thing is certain: We could do with a lot more of that quality—and of George H.W. Bush’s humility and caution as a leader—in Washington today.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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