The news in Jon Meacham’s biography of George H.W. Bush involved Bush 41’s dyspeptic views of Bush 43’s senior advisers — “iron-ass” Dick Cheney, “arrogant” Don Rumsfeld — and his not-so-veiled criticism of his son’s conduct of foreign policy.
The message of Meacham’s book has received less attention but is more important: that governing with civility is not only possible but conducive to achievement; that flexibility is not a sign of ideological or personal weakness but an essential element of a successful presidency.
“Americans unhappy with the reflexively polarized politics of the first decades of the 21st century will find the presidency of George H.W. Bush refreshing, even quaint,” Meacham writes in “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.” “He embraced compromise as a necessary element of public life, engaged his political foes in the passage of important legislation, and was willing to break with the base of his own party in order to do what he thought was right, whatever the price. Quaint, yes. But it happened in America, only a quarter of a century ago.”
We tend to recall the Bush 41 presidency for his stewardship of the Gulf War and his abandonment of his “read my lips” pledge on taxes. This ignores an impressive, and moderate, domestic record — not only a fiscal deal that paved the way to the balanced budgets of the Clinton administration, but also the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and an important overhaul of the Clean Air Act.
This kinder, gentler legacy reflects an amalgam of character, breeding and historical moment. At Greenwich Country Day School, young George earned the nickname “ ‘Have-Half’ for his habit of dividing any treat with friends.”
When Franklin Roosevelt died — Bush was a young Navy pilot — he wept, “even though I had not been raised in a pro-Roosevelt household by a long shot.” As a deflated Lyndon Johnson prepared to leave the capital following Richard Nixon’s inauguration, Bush, ever polite (and, perhaps, cognizant that Johnson might remain a force in Texas politics), took the time away from Republican festivities to drive to Andrews Air Force base to see Johnson off.
Indeed, it is possible to read Meacham’s book only as gauzy history, a “way we were” view of a time gone by, with little relevance to the poisonous present, and there is some accuracy in that assessment.
The moderate Republicans with whom Bush served as a congressman, and among whose ranks he felt ideologically comfortable, have all but vanished. Consider this astonishing Meacham statistic: As a House member in the 1960s, Bush backed Johnson-supported bills 53.5 percent of the time. After Nixon took office, that support scarcely budged. Bush himself not only voted for the Fair Housing Act, he also supported family planning, bilingual education and an expanded Head Start.
The mechanisms and realities of modern politics — the slashing 24/7 news cycle; the sorting into partisan factions that consume only media with which they agree; the powerful arsenal of super PACs and other tools of modern campaign finance warfare — all find their roots in Bush’s presidency.
“He was a creature of one Washington who inadvertently presided over the creation of another,” Meacham said at a recent book talk.
That adverb, and Meacham’s charitable assessment, strikes me as a tad too generous. Bush always made a convenient distinction between campaigning and governing; he did what was necessary in the first phase in order to progress to the second.
Thus, before Bush’s fair-housing vote came his campaign-trail opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He made the “no new taxes” pledge understanding its fundamental irresponsibility. Lee Atwater, his political architect, epitomized — actually, pioneered — the whatever-it-takes approach to politics that has flourished in the years since he ran Bush’s ugly campaign against Michael Dukakis.
And Meacham gives Bush too big a pass for one of his worst presidential decisions: nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and proclaiming that he had picked “the best man for the job on the merits.” Meacham is similarly lenient on Bush’s reflexive crediting of Thomas’s denial that he sexually harassed Anita Hill.
Still, the Bush 41 example is more than mere historical artifact; it offers a presidential role model. He understood the value of painstakingly building personal relationships, how the assiduous courting even of the opposition could pay off, even if years down the road. He was a president willing to bend, to risk reputation and reelection in the service of the national interest.
Meacham’s book should be required reading — if not for every presidential candidate, then for every president-elect.