The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion George H.W. Bush had no grand dreams. His competence and restraint were enough.

Former president George H.W. Bush arrives at the 2007 Ronald Reagan Freedom Award gala dinner held in his honor in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Matt Sayles/AP)

A ONE-TERM administration is almost automatically labeled “failed.” When George Herbert Walker Bush was defeated a quarter-century ago, after four years in office, he had a terrible approval rating and was scorned by opposition Democrats and many Republicans, too. “He was an ineffective one-term president,” said Lyn Nofziger, a blunt-spoken former aide to President Ronald Reagan. “He walked away from the Reagan legacy and tried to create his own — and failed at that.”

This characteristically acerbic verdict by the late Mr. Nofziger was unfair in 1995 and seems even more so today. The truth about the first Bush administration was never concealed: Mr. Bush, who died Friday at 94, had no grand dreams of transformation, wasn’t much into “the vision thing,” as he put it. What Mr. Bush did was handle a series of historic crises with competence and restraint, while dealing with the everyday conflicts and compromises of legislating and budgeting in a responsible and reasonable way. Mr. Bush did well while holding office. His most unattractive acts came in the seeking of it.

The end of the Cold War and of the Soviet Union, momentous events, occurred on Mr. Bush’s watch. There were missteps, but overall his handling was skillful; Mr. Bush saw the importance of giving Soviet reformers tacit support while not provoking their opponents to act against them. His decisions in 1990-1991 to protect Arab allies and drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait were bold and well-taken. Less defensible were the call on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein after the war, and the failure to respond when Hussein proceeded to slaughter those who did.

Mr. Bush was born into Republican politics; his father served as a U.S. senator from Connecticut. But it was a very different Republican Party then, one in which the Bush family’s commitment to such causes as civil rights and family planning was acceptable. When the young Bush entered politics in Texas, where he’d gone to make his fortune in the oil business, he soon became aware of the rightward drift in the party, and he ran for the U.S. Senate as a hardcore conservative who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He lost that election, and by the time he did make it to Washington as a congressman, he was once again taking a more moderate stand on civil rights and other issues.

In his come-from-behind presidential campaign in 1988 against then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Mr. Bush relied on below-the-belt attacks on such “issues” as his opponent’s furlough program for prisoners and veto of a state bill mandating the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Perhaps the most damaging thing he did that year was accept a slogan people would remember: “Read my lips — no new taxes.” It was remembered all too well when Mr. Bush, acting as a president ought to in dealing with reality, agreed to a deal with Democrats to cut ballooning deficits, in part by raising some taxes. Republicans’ anger at what they considered a betrayal, as well as a brief economic downturn, contributed greatly to Mr. Bush’s defeat.

It was odd that the term “wimp” was applied to George H.W. Bush, a man who enlisted in the Navy the day he turned 18 and flew 58 combat missions. Perhaps odder was how the comedian and Bush impersonator Dana Carvey (whom Mr. Bush later befriended) had such success with a line poking fun at the president’s carefulness: “Wouldn’t be prudent.” Funny how, since Mr. Bush left office, and especially in the past few years of political posturing, nonnegotiable demands and unashamed demagoguery, prudence has come to look awfully attractive.

Read more:

Bill Clinton: George H.W. Bush’s Oval Office note to me revealed the heart of who he was

John H. Sununu: Goodbye, George H.W. Bush. The world will miss a great president — and I will miss a friend.

George F. Will: The extraordinary life and times of George H.W. Bush

E.J. Dionne Jr.: George H.W. Bush represented a different kind of Republicanism — one that better served our country

David Von Drehle: The two-syllable word that summed up George H.W. Bush — in the best way