It turns out that all it takes to transform cowardice into courage is 22 years, a touch of amnesia and a bit of fairy dust from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
On Sunday, the Kennedy Library gave its “Profile in Courage Award” to former President George H.W. Bush for bravely agreeing in 1990 to sign a budget deal that contained tax increases, even though he had memorably declared during the 1988 campaign “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
Here’s the Kennedy Library’s version of what happened:
“He had promised Americans no new taxes during the presidential campaign two years earlier and he was voted into office with that promise. But, he had also promised to serve his country, and he decided that was the promise he would keep…. America’s gain was President Bush’s loss, and his decision to put country above party and political prospects makes him an example of a modern profile in courage that is all too rare.”
I was covering economic policy for The Washington Post from 1990 through 1993, and things were not that simple. First, making the pledge was a political maneuver that Bush must have known was not sustainable given the mounting federal deficits in the 1980s.
Second, he held out for a long time to avoid breaking the pledge; the deadlock with House Democrats forced the government to briefly shut down. He did not lead the way to a tax deal; he made Democrats push hard for it and let his budget director figure out how to package it.
Third, after signing the budget deal, Bush tried to distance himself from it. Even before the formal signing ceremony, he said at a press conference that he "had to gag and digest" parts of the deal. Later he was pressed by some of his political advisers to renounce the deal when he was campaigning for reelection in 1992. On March 3, 1992, Bush declared in a public appearance and interviews that the 1990 deal was a mistake. "If I had it to do over, I wouldn't do what I did then, for a lot of reasons, including political reasons," he said.
It has become a central part of political mythology that Bush lost the 1992 election because of the 1990 budget deal and the breaking of the “read my lips” pledge from 1988. But there is limited evidence to support that. President Ronald Reagan campaigned on a platform of cutting taxes, and then after cutting them reversed himself three times and still was reelected. And Bush lost the 1992 election in a three-way race against Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, both of whom campaigned on programs that included tax increases larger than the 1990 deal. In his book "Who's in Control?" Bush’s budget director, the late Richard G. Darman, noted that “together, these advocates of big additional tax increases – Clinton and Perot – got 62 percent of the vote. So it seems hard to defend the proposition that the vote against President Bush was a vote against taxes.”
Bush had many other problems that stood in the way of reelection. After the budget deal, his approval ratings fell, but with the invasion of Iraq in Desert Storm his approval ratings soared to 89 percent. Then they steadily declined. Voters thought he lacked vision and was an awkward campaigner. The Federal Reserve had failed to ease monetary policy enough to recharge the economy in time for the public to change its gloomy mood about the country’s direction before the election. The savings and loan crisis was dragging on.
Conservative Republicans, led by then-House member Newt Gingrich, wanted to seize control of the party from moderates even if it cost them the White House. Bush for them was too moderate, too much of an environmentalist; they disapproved of his signing the 1990 Clean Air Act. Some thought that when he invaded Iraq, Bush should have pushed all the way to Baghdad.
Breaking his “read my lips” pledge played a role, but by distancing himself from the budget compromise, Bush failed to get credit from either end of the political spectrum. Those angry about him breaking the pledge were still angry. Those who felt he had failed to show leadership on a tax compromise still felt that way. He had demonstrated weakness and fear of losing the election, hardly a profile in courage.
In fairness, in accepting the award, Bush did not claim credit for courage. Unable to attend the ceremony, the former president sent a message. The only allusion he made to the substance of the award itself was this: “Thank you again for remembering what our team tried to do lo those many years ago.”
“Candidly speaking, my grandfather didn’t want to raise taxes in 1990, but in our constitutional system of governance Congress also gets a say – and besides that, he felt he owed the American people action and results,” said Bush’s granddaughter Lauren Bush Lauren, who accepted the award on his behalf. “Compromise is a dirty word in Washington today, because we live in the age of the perpetual campaign. But once we get back to realizing the importance of actual governance, I suspect this, too, will pass.”
Bush faced many challenges while in office and undoubtedly had his virtues. However, this was not his finest hour.