“Bush Republican” is a badge worn proudly by many Republicans who came of age after the convulsions of Vietnam and Watergate subsided. If you were with President Gerald R. Ford in his epic struggle with Ronald Reagan in the 1976 Republican primaries, there was a good chance you signed on with George H.W. Bush in the run-up to the 1980 nomination. President Reagan the legend wasn’t a legend in those days. “Dutch” and “HW” traded hammer blows as all the other would-be nominees fell away.
As late as April and May, Bush won the Pennsylvania and Michigan primaries, respectively. But by the Detroit GOP convention in July, the former California governor had sewn up the nomination. When the “joint presidency” talks between Team Reagan and former president Ford collapsed, Reagan turned to his principle opponent and brought the wings of the party together.
Reagan’s natural good humor and amiability and then-Vice President Bush’s legendary graciousness proved a formidable pairing, and the “Bushies” were absorbed into the Reagan administration. Indeed, the two “wings” became one party built around tax cuts, a strong national defense and social issues such as opposition to abortion. Supreme Court nominations began their long descent into — for Republican nominees — gantlets to be run. A decade later, Bush would stand by Clarence Thomas in the ordeal leading to his confirmation, providing a model of how a president must stick with a nominee.
If there were one salient difference between the Reaganites and the “Bushies,” it came on the “Moral Majority” issue set, and not so much on substance but on tone. New England WASPism did not merge easily with evangelical Christian fervor or Roman Catholic activism on abortion. And when Bush became president, the lopping off of many Reagan loyalists’ political heads was in some cases brusque. Others, such as Secretary of State James A. Baker III, served both men with extraordinary loyalty and effectiveness. But the desire by some on Team Bush for a clean break with the “Reagan Era” was obvious. The “two wings” were back by early 1989, and while George W. Bush was very much his father’s son, his political coalition in 2000 was far closer to Reagan’s than to his father’s in 1980.
The son of Sen. Prescott Bush — an early opponent of Sen. Joe McCarthy and one of the most senior Republicans appalled by Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce and remarriage — and the father not just of W. but also of Jeb (two extremely successful governors and men of obvious and sincere religious faith), 41 was private about his own beliefs but expressive often of a deep core of moral certainty. Easily brought to emotion by the sacrifices of the military, the war hero carried himself with the humility that seemed the essence of the Greatest Generation. So many men of his time did not come back from war; those who did did not brag of their battlefield accomplishments.
Bushies internalized all that. On “Meet the Press” panels, I refer to myself as a “Portman Republican” these days, after Ohio’s Sen. Rob Portman, himself a Bush protege. Bushies of the 41 vintage are still everywhere, though not often seen on cable. It is hard to imagine Bush on the debate stages of 2016, or those that loom in 2020. It was a different era. And those who could not believe the country did not reelect the sagacious and gentle man in 1992 wonder about the national road not taken. We were blessed to have had him in public service for all those years, and we would be much better off as a nation had we re-upped for four more years. How much would be different today.
Of course he made mistakes — the biggest blunders domestically and internationally were picking David Souter over Edith H. Jones for the Supreme Court and leaving Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq — but many of his achievements are overlooked, such as the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which tackled acid rain and the ozone hole, and the warm embrace of newly freed Nelson Mandela at the White House in June of the same year.
We forget a lot about this gracious man. His tireless work for so many good causes in his post-presidential years created a model for others to follow.