41st president’s leadership and restraint marked the end of an era in America: Our view
Though George H.W. Bush’s presidency ended just a quarter-century ago, it seems like a different era altogether. He personified a time when Democrats and Republicans could work together and when international diplomacy was not scorned as a sign of weakness.
Last year, a C-Span survey of historians ranked Bush — who died Friday at age 94 — 20th of 44 presidents considered. A survey of political scientists this year ranked him 17th. Though both polls put him atop the list of presidents turned out of office by the voters, they may be a bit low for a president who looks better and better each year.
Bush was a thoroughly decent man, in stark contrast to the current occupant of the White House. To him, loyalty to country — whether in serving as the Navy’s youngest aviator in World War II or forging a bipartisan consensus on air pollution — came well before party and self.
Domestically, his deficit-reduction act of 1990 was one of the most fiscally prudent actions ever taken by the federal government. It put real caps on spending and required Congress to pay for any tax cuts or increased entitlements. It laid the groundwork for future budget surpluses and demonstrated how public servants of good faith could make tough decisions on behalf of the American people.
But it also set off a rebellion in the GOP, with only 47 House Republicans, out of 173, voting for it. That rebellion, prompted by modest tax increases in the measure, marked the beginning of an evolution in the party toward more partisan and inflexible stances. Those stances are the principal reason behind today’s budget impasses.
Internationally, his decision to patiently assemble a broad coalition to get Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and to limit the 1991 Persian Gulf War to that objective, was clearly the right call. The decision by his son, George W. Bush, to launch a full-scale invasion of Iraq in 2003 — one that has cost America dearly in blood, treasure and standing among allies — demonstrated the wisdom of the elder Bush’s restraint.
He will also go down as an end-of-an-era type leader. He was less polished than his successors and was never a great campaigner. But he always came off as genuine. A product of the Greatest Generation, he enlisted in the Navy the day he graduated from high school and rose in public life by serving country first and letting the politics sort themselves out. Among his few missteps was elevating an ill-prepared and ideologically extreme judge, Clarence Thomas, to the Supreme Court.
There is, however, a unfortunate postscript to his presidency in the evolution of today’s Republican Party.
Since the 1990s, the GOP has come to define itself as a party that should never, ever raise taxes, even as part of responsible deficit reduction or to meet pressing national needs. In that regard Bush — who famously said “read my lips, no new taxes” during the 1988 campaign only to realize that some modest tax hikes were necessary — has become a kind of villain to an increasingly strident bloc of lawmakers.
Fortunately, that view is not shared by many outside of party hard-liners. Most Americans have been developing ever more positive opinions of the 41st president. Considering all that he stood for — and perhaps more important all that he didn’t stand for — that view is right on the mark. George H.W. Bush should be remembered as a great American, a class act and an underrated president.
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