Editor’s note: Today’s editorial orginally appeared in The Chicago Tribune. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
When George H.W. Bush left the White House, he was enveloped in an aura of failure. The economy had been through a recession, Saddam Hussein was still defying the world and the president was the clueless patrician who strained to convince voters that he understood their economic problems. More than 62 percent of Americans voted against him in his 1992 bid for re-election.
He was seen as out of touch by Democrats, who decried his alleged inaction on the economy, and untrustworthy by many Republicans, who never forgave him for reversing himself and agreeing to raise taxes. The prosperity that spread under his successor, Bill Clinton, contributed to the image of Bush as a failure.
It’s a measure of his reputation at the time that when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he was careful to distance himself from his father: “He went to Greenwich Country Day — I went to San Jacinto Junior High.”
But long before his death Friday at age 94, Americans came to appreciate qualities in the elder Bush that they had once discounted. He was a model of old-fashioned WASP restraint — which seemed more appealing after the notoriously voluble Bill Clinton blundered into a sex scandal and then lied about it. In recent years that restraint sometimes gave way to exuberance: Bush celebrated his 90th birthday by skydiving, as he had done on his 80th and 85th.
Bush’s caution and diplomatic savvy looked especially valuable after his son invaded Iraq to remove Saddam — miring the nation in a war that lasted more than eight years.
In retirement, the elder Bush’s modesty, seriousness and gentlemanly grace softened the feelings of many who had voted against him. He also benefited from public affection for Barbara Bush, the high school sweetheart he married in 1945 and who preceded him in death by seven months. And he surprised some people by forging a close friendship with Clinton, helping lead relief efforts after the 2004 Asian tsunami.
Bush, the son of a U.S. senator, had a record of public service that few presidents could match: decorated World War II naval aviator, congressman from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, ambassador to China, director of central intelligence and vice president for two terms alongside President Ronald Reagan. Shouldering responsibility came naturally to him.
What did not come naturally were the political skills that made Reagan and Clinton so persuasive. Bush wasn’t comfortable selling himself, and when he tried, he was often awkward and inarticulate. That deficiency could be traced to his mother, who warned her children against overuse of the word “I.” He admitted he wasn’t good at “the vision thing.”
But vision isn’t everything. Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith says Bush exemplified “statecraft over stagecraft.” His background in foreign affairs came in handy in the White House, where he did a quiet but masterful job of managing the demise of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire as well as the reunification of Germany.
He didn’t let Iraq get away with brazenly invading Kuwait, but after driving Saddam’s forces from that country, he ignored demands that he proceed to Baghdad and topple the tyrant. The U.S. won the war with 148 combat deaths.
Bush was faulted for inattention to domestic affairs. In agreeing with congressional Democrats on a deal to reduce the budget deficit, he infuriated conservatives by accepting a tax increase. But the compromise paid off: Spending grew by less under him than under any president since Dwight Eisenhower, and the deficit began shrinking.
Often forgotten are achievements like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Bush signed in 1990, expanding opportunities for people with physical or mental limitations, and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which are estimated to save 4.2 million lives by 2020. Also, the economy was in better shape than most Americans realized: The 1990-91 recession was one of the mildest on record, and in each quarter of 1992, output grew at an impressive rate of more than 4 percent. The nation’s Clinton-era prosperity began well before Clinton arrived.
Bush’s worst mistake was his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran to win the release of Americans held hostage in Lebanon. Some of the proceeds were diverted to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua whom Congress had denied aid. He was “out of the loop” on the deal, he claimed, not very convincingly. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh considered indicting him for concealing what he knew from investigators. When Bush pardoned six former Reagan officials who had been indicted or convicted for their parts in the operation, Walsh said bitterly that “the Iran-Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.”
Bush seems like an ancient relic of a party that has gone extinct. His gravity, moderation, vast experience and serious purpose could hardly be less like the qualities for which Trump is known.
If anything, the once-golden family name hurt son Jeb with Republican presidential primary voters, who gravitated to bombast (from Trump) and ideological fervor (from Ted Cruz). In 2016, George H.W. Bush did not endorse Trump and reportedly expressed his intention to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Like most elected leaders, Bush erred, sometimes badly. He lacked the magnetism of his immediate predecessor and his successor. He got more of the blame for the economy than he deserved. And it’s the fate of one-term presidents to be regarded as either unsuccessful or unimportant.
But time is a great clarifier: Today, it’s clear that Bush was neither of those.