Since the passing Friday of George H.W. Bush, there have been many recollections of the most famous lines or most memorable speeches by the 41st president. His “thousand points of light” remark from his acceptance and inaugural speeches was used by the current White House to celebrate the former commander in chief just months after President Trump openly ridiculed it. Bush’s “read my lips” promise got pulled into round-up after round-up of the former president’s most famous sayings.
Yet presidential rhetoric scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson said in an interview Monday that what’s even more memorable are the remarks he never made: Any kind of big public speech after the Berlin Wall fell, at a time when many expected one.
“He could have said ‘we did it. The U.S. is victorious‚’ ” said Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “But he did not do that. And as a result he didn’t get the kind of credit in that moment that he might have.”
That measured approach to leadership in a time of tumultuous world events embodies the kind of leader Bush was, said Jamieson and others.
Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and author of the book “When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War,” said in an interview that despite pressure from lawmakers, the media and others, the 41st president refused to, in Bush’s words, “dance on the wall.” Then-Democratic House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt lamented that "at the very time freedom and democracy are receiving standing ovations in Europe, our president is sitting politely in the audience with little to say and even less to contribute.”
The CBS reporter Lesley Stahl said to Bush, during a press gaggle in the Oval Office at the time, “this is sort of a great victory for our side in the East-West battle, but you don’t seem elated.” Bush spoke to reporters, but “gave a master class in how to speak for half an hour without saying anything,” Engel said.
There was a reason for that restraint. Bush had been receiving warnings since his first week in office that a conservative communist coup was possible against Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, and fears that violence could erupt and another Tiananmen Square could occur -- indeed, the word “Tiananmen” shows up repeatedly in his notes from calls during those nights, Engel said. Looking too close to the West could have hurt Gorbachev’s standing -- though he also could not be dismissed. Bush dialing back the triumphant rhetoric was a way of walking that political tightrope.
“Everything he said was cautious and calculated because he realized, frankly, in a way that I wish that subsequent presidents realized -- including the current one -- that everything he said was magnified around the world,” Engel said.
Timothy McBride, a former George H.W. Bush aide, echoed those thoughts in the transcript for a presidential oral history interview by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, saying it may have affected Bush’s legacy. In part because Bush didn’t speak out more triumphantly at the time, "most people identify the fall of the wall with Reagan and some of his messages.”
But, in his view, Germany’s reunification, and “the peaceful unwind of the Cold War, is probably the signature, the most important contribution President Bush’s presidency has made to history. That could have gone many different ways and I think it was his leadership that led to the unwind of that.”
It also didn’t help Bush politically. Bush could have benefited from the sound bite from a bold speech made in Berlin and an image of him proclaiming victory in the Cold War with the fallen wall in the background during his re-election campaign, amid a poor economy.
It also reinforced the negative public image of Bush as an out-of-touch patrician who was a “wimp” with “no political backbone," Engel said.
The perception was that Bush had “a lack of interest or laziness -- two things which were the exact opposite in real life. The pressure continued to mount for him to go and do something that would be a fireworks moment and he simply refused,” Engel said, in part because he knew a summit with Gorbachev was just weeks away.
“When we think about Bush not dancing on the wall, remember he’s invited to a bigger dinner dance two weeks later,” Engel said. He describes Bush’s foreign policy philosophy as “hippocratic": “If things are going well, don’t screw it up.”
Even though Bush knew it might hurt him politically, Engel said, he was a president who “really understood that he was a caretaker of the White House and that his job was to hand the baton to the next guy." He remained quiet because he knew the nation and the office were so much “bigger than one man’s political fortunes -- specifically something I do not see today.”
The lack of a big showy speech was a reminder, Jamieson said, that “sometimes the right thing to do is not celebrate and engage in a rhetoric of triumph.”
As Jamieson put it: “When you evaluate a presidency, you ask ‘did the president, in difficult times, make decisions that were good for the country even if they were not in his political interest?’ ”