George HW Bush: A legacy repackaged for Trump era

Americans have not just been mourning the passing of a president, but also the vanishing of a bygone politics.

For George Herbert Walker Bush was the last president of America’s greatest generation: a war hero who bemoaned the end of the patriotic bipartisanship that was such a feature of the early post-war years; a moderate who was genuine when he vowed in 1988 to make his country kinder and gentler; a pragmatist who viewed with suspicion the rise of ideological purists in the Republican Party who fetishised tax cuts and demonised government.

For many his death marks the end of an era, but the truth is that age of American politics drew to a close a quarter of a century ago.

Its death knell began to toll at the beginning of the 1990s with the generational shift away from politicians, such as GHW Bush, who had served in World War II and been tested in combat, to Baby Boomers, such as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, whose formative years were spent waging the cultural battles of the 1960s and whose politics was more aggressively partisan.

Like Harry S Truman, another great foreign policy president who was underappreciated at the time, Bush offers a prime example of how presidential reputations evolve over the passing years, how legacies are reassessed and how traits characterised contemporaneously as weaknesses can be judged by future generations as virtues.

Posterity is certainly being more generous than the headline writers of the time, who derided him as a wimp and something of a presidential placeholder sandwiched awkwardly between the more significant figures of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Yet Bush, in his less showy way, was also an era-defining politician, short-lived though it turned out to be: those fleeting years of unrivalled American global dominance.

Shaking hands in Helsinki with Soviet President Mikhail GorbachevImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionShaking hands after talks in Helsinki with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev

Lest we lapse into hagiography, a modern-day tendency in a world increasingly bereft of political giants, it is worth highlighting at the outset Bush’s many failings.

Fighting for the presidency in 1988, he took the low road to the White House by questioning the patriotism of his Greek-American Democratic opponent Mike Dukakis, and by crudely stoking racial fears. The Bush campaign didn’t make the notorious Willie Horton ad – it was put out by a pro-Bush political action committee – but it ran on cable television for 25 days before the candidate condemned it.

Lee Atwater, Bush’s abrasive campaign chief, licked his South Carolinian lips at the prospect of portraying Dukakis as a liberal elitist soft on crime. “If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election,” he said, evidently with the blessing of his candidate.

The gracious letter Bush wrote to Bill Clinton on inauguration day in January 1993, in which he noted “Your success now is our country’s success”, also needs to be contextualised.

Bush did not think Clinton possessed the personal rectitude to be president, and in his diary that day recorded his reaction to a soldier who gave him a thumbs-up during the inaugural celebrations.

“I must say I thought to myself, ‘How in God’s name did this country elect a draft dodger? I didn’t feel it with bitterness. I just felt it almost generational. What I am missing?'”

Bush speaks in a debate with Perot and ClintonImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionBush speaks in a debate with Perot and Clinton

Ahead of the 1992 election, the former navy pilot, who had been shot down by the Japanese over the Pacific, had been dismissive of his younger rival, who had not served in Vietnam and never donned military fatigues. “The American people are never going to elect a person of Bill Clinton’s character,” he sneered.

Fighting for a Senate seat in Texas in 1964, the younger Bush had opposed the landmark Civil Rights Act that demolished segregation in the South and derided Martin Luther King as “a militant”.

Yet even as far back as the mid-Sixties, when the Republican Party’s centre of gravity started to shift from Wall Street to the states of the Old Confederacy and south-western Sun Belt, Bush expressed concerns about the growing radicalisation of the conservative movement.

“When the word moderation becomes a dirty word we have some soul searching to do,” he observed after his defeat in 1964. “I want conservatism to be sensitive and dynamic, not scared and reactionary.”

By 1988, when he won the presidential nomination of his party by seeing off more right-wing rivals, the words “sensitive and dynamic” had morphed into “kinder and gentler.”

The Bush family watch the 1988 election results come inImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe Bush family watch the 1988 election results come in

Donald Trump recently mocked Bush’s famed thousand points of light speech, asking his rally-goers “what the hell was that?” But for Bush those words defined a brand of compassionate conservatism that was partly a corrective to the “greed is good” excesses of the Reagan years, partly an articulation of the noblesse oblige imbued in him as a child of the American aristocracy, and maybe also an expression of parental bereavement. The Bushes’ beloved daughter Robin died of leukaemia aged three.

Paradoxically, no one better personified the geographic reorientation of the Republican Party than Bush, the scion of a Connecticut banking family and son of a patrician Senator who became a Texan oilman and Lone Star politician.