The recent death of George H.W. Bush has prompted many of us to navigate back in our memories to the years when he was president, after being elected in 1988. It's tricky time travel, because those four years of his relatively self-effacing presidency are squeezed between monumental eras defined by the provocative, self-aggrandizing figures of Reagan and Gingrich. A clear sense of George H.W. is further hampered by the legacy of his son George W's administration, marked by the monumental disasters of 9/11, subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic meltdown.
George H.W. was the last Republican with moderate leanings to be elected president, and the last Republican president who cared enough to study up for the job. He represented a brief pause in the Republican Party's radical evolution or devolution from Reagan to Gingrich to Trump. Lacking charisma or an appealing voice, the only way George H.W. could get elected was by channeling Reagan during the campaign, and hiring hit men like Lee Atwater to do the political dirty work that an instinctively kinder, gentler man like George H.W. could not stomach.
To understand his presidency, it's helpful to realize that along with the voluminous letter writing and other acts of thoughtfulness, George H.W. was also highly competitive, which was on full display in his showdown with Dan Rather, who one evening aggressively and fruitlessly questioned him about the Iran-Contra debacle. Many of us wanted answers to Rather's questions, but the powerful political spin in the days that followed made Rather's behavior the issue, rather than Bush's lack of candor. Though I was never a fan of Rather as news anchor, and wished he had stayed in the reporter role at which he excelled, his confrontation with President Bush seemed a turning point for journalism, as the rising power of conservative cable news stations put journalists on notice that anyone pursuing uncomfortable truths would be punished.
George H.W.'s administration also marked the last time a Republican president would act responsibly on tax policy. Having channeled Reagan during the campaign with stirring words like "read my lips, no new taxes", George H.W. chose a more responsible approach to governance. He broke the campaign pledge, and raised taxes in order to deal with the rising deficits he had inherited from the Reagan era. No good deed goes unpunished, and the rightwing flexed its muscles to insure that no Republican president would dare act responsibly in the future.
George H.W. also, unfortunately in this case, broke a campaign promise to act on climate change, despite strong calls for action coming from his EPA chief and James Baker. He listened instead to his chief of staff John Sununu, an early denier of this existential threat to the nation. When looking back on all the failures to act on climate change, I particularly grieve for the tragic side of James Baker's career. Beginning as a Democrat, he married a Republican and shifted to that party to work with George H.W. in Texas. Baker's extraordinary competence was not allowed to serve the cause of slowing climate change in the George H.W. administration, and Baker's talents later contributed to clinching the 2000 election for the younger Bush over Al Gore, setting back action on climate change another eight years. Only recently has Baker been able to emerge from this long eclipse of his principals, advocating for a carbon tax.
During the 1992 campaign against the intimidating talent and intellect of Bill Clinton, George H.W. seemed to lose the will to win. After four years as a moderate leading an increasingly conservative political party, he couldn't find it in his nature to channel Reagan one more time. His defeat would confirm for Republicans that the road to power is not paved with bipartisan agreement and compromise. Attempts to compete with Democrats for the middle ground were considered from there on pointless.
Eulogies tend to mention his having been the last president from the Greatest Generation--an unfortunate term, given the implication that America's greatest generation, and therefore its greatest days, lie in the past. Back then, sacrifice for the country was considered the ultimate expression of that which one hold's dear. Freedom was valued over consumption, and people from all walks of life signed up to fight against totalitarianism. That great mixing of people and economic classes during the war years created a sense of unity and common purpose in the country that survived, at least to some degree, in people like George H.W. Bush.
While serving in the Navy during WWII, he was rescued at sea after having to bail out of the bomber he piloted. The rope used to pull him back on board was reportedly made of hemp, an extremely useful plant that American farmers are prevented from growing due to its similarity in appearance to marijuana. Reading about Bush's term as president, I had hoped to find evidence that he had sought a kinder, gentler approach to drug addiction and drug-related crime, but couldn't find any. What we know for sure is that no rope of any kind is being thrown to moderate Republicans now, wherever they may be.