Yesterday I went to pay my respects to former president George Herbert Walker Bush as he lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The crowds were considerably thinner than what I remember from when I went to see former president Ronald Reagan lying in state in the same place in 2004, when the lines of people who wanted to see his casket snaked all the way around the Mall. Fourteen years ago, I waited all night to get into the Capitol by daybreak, and there was a palpable feeling of being present at the passing of one of the greats of our time. Bush’s memorial was a solemn and respectful occasion, but it was not charged with anything like the same world-historic electricity as Reagan’s.
The contrast would not have surprised Bush, who in his later years held no illusions about his legacy. “I feel like an asterisk,” the one-term president told his biographer John Meacham. “I am lost between the glory of Reagan — monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero — and the trials and tribulations of my sons.” However, Bush may be of more interest to history as the last president of his kind.
Bush was the last president to have been shaped by the distinctive culture of the New England WASP upper class and the gentlemanly values inculcated at prewar prep schools like his alma mater, Andover. He exemplified many of the best characteristics of that culture, including a basic personal decency, an even temperament, an inclination toward self-deprecation, and an obligation toward public service — not to mention his endearing habit of producing uncounted thousands of handwritten, personal notes.
But he also reflected that culture’s starchy discomfort with open displays of emotion as well as its difficulty in comprehending the experiences and perspectives of the less fortunate.
He was the last president from the so-called “Greatest Generation” that was shaped by the searing experiences of Depression and war. He was, in fact, the last president to have been alive during World War II. As a Navy pilot in that conflict, Bush engaged in combat and emerged a war hero. None of his successors ever fought in a war.
Bush was the last president to have been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Republican Party leadership (as chair of the Republican National Committee). He was the last president to have been an ambassador (to the United Nations and China) and the only president, ever, to have been director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Despite his half-hearted efforts to pass himself off as a Texan, Bush was the last president who represented Eastern establishment values of prudence, pragmatism, tolerance, measured judgment, and internationalism. At the same time, he revealed himself to be willing to subordinate his principles to the higher need of winning elections in a Republican Party that was becoming increasingly Southern and conservative.
As an undergraduate at Yale, Bush had led a fundraising drive for the United Negro College Fund, but in 1964, running for the U.S. Senate in Texas, Bush opposed the landmark Civil Rights Act that ended Jim Crow segregation in the South. Once in office as a member of the House of Representatives, however, Bush was able to recover his conscience and courage, voting for the 1968 Fair Housing Act in the face of angry criticism from his Houston-area district.
A similar pattern recurred later in his career. As Reagan’s vice president, Bush brokered a congressional deal to strengthen the Fair Housing Act and enable the government to enforce its provisions. But when he ran to succeed Reagan in 1988, he countenanced a nasty campaign that used the menacing mug shot of “Willie” Horton to aggravate white fears of black crime, effectively Southernizing the Republican stance on race relations.
Bush’s victory over Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis made him the first sitting vice president to be elected to the presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836. In hindsight, the election is notable for Bush’s having received a higher percentage of the popular vote (53.4%) than any of his successors. Bush also was the last Republican presidential candidate to win California.
Our forty-first president held the White House for the Republicans for a third consecutive term — the only time either party has achieved this feat since the Roosevelt-Truman era. Following the phenomenally popular Reagan, Bush promised continuity rather than change. Bush’s invocation of a “kinder, gentler America” was interpreted as a backhanded criticism of his predecessor, but his domestic agenda was much the same as Reagan’s, though with more emphasis on voluntarism (the sometimes-mocked “thousand points of light”) and education reform.
Bush’s ability to enact major domestic programs was in any case limited by Democratic control of Congress throughout his presidency, and by budget constraints created by the deficits that had exploded during Reagan’s presidency.
Bush was the last moderate Republican president, and the last to uphold that now-diminished faction’s values of fiscal prudence, social tolerance, consensus building, and multilateral cooperation in foreign policy. His centrism had been the reason for his selection as Reagan’s running mate, in order to reassure voters who worried that Reagan was too ideologically extreme.
Bush did his best to allay the suspicions of Reagan and his conservative followers — by renouncing his former support for Planned Parenthood, for example — but he never fully succeeded. His wife, Barbara, was the last Republican presidential spouse to support the Equal Rights Amendment. Friends said she was privately pro-choice; publicly, she called for keeping abortion out of Republican convention platforms.
Bush’s fundamental loyalties were to the traditional Republican Party rather than the conservative movement or his own brand of populism. He enraged Reaganites with many of his appointments, including moderate-leaning James Baker as secretary of state, Richard Darman as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Colin Powell as the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bush advocated for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and secured passage of an updated and expanded version of the Clean Air Act. He openly defied the National Rifle Association by supporting a ban on AK-47 assault rifles — something all but unthinkable for a Republican president today. He later resigned as a life member of the NRA in protest against executive vice president Wayne LaPierre’s characterization of federal agents as “jack-booted thugs.”
While Reagan gets far more credit for pushing the Soviet Union towards collapse, it was Bushwho was in office when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, when Germany reunified in 1990, and when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Bush’s muted public response to these epochal events stood in sharp contrast with Reagan’s rhetorical approach; Reagan almost certainly have commemorated these epochal events in ringing terms as victories for America and freedom. But Bush’s studied avoidance of triumphalism may have helped to avoid a backlash by hardliners in Eastern Europe and brought the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. The WASP reserve paid diplomatic dividends.
Indeed, Bush was the last president to have entered office with significant experience in foreign policy. His signal accomplishment as president was the assembly of an international coalition to oppose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Through masterful use of personal diplomacy, Bush secured the financial and military backing of 39 nations for the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm as well as a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary means” to reverse Iraq’s occupation.
The resounding military victory in the first Gulf War offered the promise of what Bush called a “New World Order,” marking the last moment when it seemed that powerful but self-restrained American leadership could usher in a new era of global cooperation, solidarity against aggression, and respect for international law and human rights. (Some critics, missing Bush’s emphasis on American restraint, heard Orwellian overtones in the “New World Order” phrase.)
Bush was the last Republican president who seriously believed in the party’s legacy of fiscal conservatism — though, again, he found himself awkwardly tailoring his views to maintain his political viability in a changing era. He had once railed against Reagan’s “voodoo economics” — the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves — then recanted when picked to be Reagan’s vice president, and later as a candidate for the presidency. At the convention at which he was nominated, he made the Clint Eastwood-like pledge “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
But as president, Bush returned to the long-held Republican orthodoxy that while lower taxes were desirable, to cut taxes when the federal government was running a deficit was senseless: It would spur inflation and drown the economy in red ink. Republicans also had traditionally believed that raising revenues as well as cutting spending was a legitimate response to growing deficits.
The 1990 recession, combined with the savings and loan crisis that had begun during Reagan’s presidency, convinced Bush that tax increases had to be part of an overall deficit-reduction package. The ensuing deal, reached by necessity through negotiations with Congressional Democrats, included an increase in the top marginal tax rate, from 28 to 31 percent, in exchange for spending cuts and mechanisms for controlling future deficits.
The right wing howled that Bush had betrayed them (and his own sacred lip-reading oath), and predicted that the budget deal would wreck the economy while doing nothing to reduce the deficit. Both predictions proved false. The Budget Enforcement Act contributed significantly to the economic boom and budget surpluses of the ‘90s.
Bush and his economic advisors argued that the 1990 tax increases, as a share of GDP, were less than half of those Reagan had accepted in 1982 (in response to the eruption in deficits sparked by the excessive tax cuts of the year before), and that Reagan had in any case raised taxes eleven times during his presidency. But by this time the conservative movement’s orthodoxy of tax-cutting had replaced the old Republican orthodoxy of fiscal responsibility, and most Republicans in Congress voted against the budget deal.
At present, Bush is the last president to have lost a reelection campaign. His 1992 defeat stemmed from a number of factors including the primary challenge mounted against him by paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan, Bush’s seeming unresponsiveness to public anger over the economic slowdown, and widespread concern that the Republican Party had veered too far to the right in responding to the “culture wars,” the Los Angeles riots, and other polarizing events.
But the lesson most Republicans chose to draw was that Bush had committed political suicide by raising taxes and alienating the party’s conservative “base.” Because that framing won out, Bush may go down in history as the last Republican president ever to agree to a tax increase.
Bush achieved partial vindication when his eldest son, George W. Bush, won the presidency in 2000 and was reelected in 2004. But his son’s terms in office cemented the new identity of the GOP as a predominantly Southern and Western party, dominated by ideological conservatism and evangelical religion, committed to unilateralism abroad and tax cuts at home, and characterized by hostility toward science and political compromise. The Republican Party under President Donald Trump has moved even further toward populism and away from the moderation that had defined the GOP throughout most of its history.
Most tributes to George H. W. Bush have remembered him for his decency, gentlemanliness, civility, and willingness to work with people who disagreed with him. But beyond his personality, and even beyond his accomplishments, history may remember him as the last true Republican president.