It’s a cosmic injustice when a man is a victim of his own success. I think that pretty well describes George H.W. Bush in the photo above from 1992, as Bush debated Perot and Clinton in his failed attempt at re-election.
I was about 10-11 years old at the time, and had just developed my love for politics and debate. I knew then what I know now – Bush was a good man, but he represented America’s past. Perot was the future. (Maybe not Perot himself, but the ideas he ran on.)
Bush always had a modesty about him, and that’s part of the reason he was underappreciated at the time. But he was actually a very significant one-term President. I recently heard his dear friend, and wise former Sec. of State James Baker say that Bush was the most substantial one-term President in our history. (More than John Adams?!) Well, I would maybe give him most significant one-term President of the 20th Century.
Bush represented the end of an era. It was the bipolarity of the Cold War. Bush saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the soaring economy from the second half of the Reagan era, prudently worked with Congress to manage the soaring debt from the Reagan era, and then led the charge to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I know plenty of good, peace loving people who have labelled Bush a “warmonger” for Operation Desert Storm. This is misguided. A war monger looks for reasons to go to war. A cautious realist goes to war when necessary. When a dangerous dictator that controls some of the Arab oil supply, conquers a neighbor to control more of the Arab oil supply, war is necessary. I think Bush used as much force as was necessary, and no more. Truly, this is the kind of leadership you can expect from a humble man with the kind of character judgement to chose someone like James Baker to be his Sec. of State.
The problem for Mr. Bush was that by the end of his first term, he had finished solving all of yesterday’s problems. America’s hard hats, and my 10-year old self, were all like “yes yes yes, thanks for winning the Cold War, and winning Operation Desert Storm and all, but now what? What about our jobs?”
Ross Perot is a true patriot. I noticed on stage that Perot seemed to have a certain respect for Mr. Bush. That didn’t stop him from fiercely debating him on his naive trade philosophies. Bush may have been prudent when it came to foreign policy, but he was idealistic and horribly misguided on trade.
The above photo says it all. Bush was dignified, but passing. Perot passionately argued for our country’s future. But to the right, smugly, stands Bill Clinton. Opportunistically he positioned himself to take the White House by taking cheap shots against Bush for having compromised on taxes. Opportunistically did he position himself as a moderate on trade, only to sell out America’s working class at the first opportunity. Perot’s ideas may be America’s future, but Bill Clinton was America’s present at the time. It was a present where the greatness built by people like George H. W. Bush would be squandered by political opportunists playing “moderate” like Bill Clinton, and fiercely partisan demagogues like Newt Gingrich.*
Some said McCain’s death represented the end of an era? No. McCain was just another “moderate”. Less sleazy than Clinton? Sure, but that’s a low bar! Bush’s death does represent the end of an era. An era where political leaders really were public servants who were self sacrificing, and would lose an election for the good of the country.
RIP Mr. Bush. You lived a long, amazing life!
*Gingrich has his good points, but I meant what I said. For the record, I actually don’t think “demagogues” are all that bad, but they do rouse passion and impede critical thinking, though they usually represent legitimate grievances.