ShareThis Page
George H.W. Bush |
Daily Gallery

George H.W. Bush

United Press International
| Saturday, December 1, 2018 8:27 a.m
In this Oct. 18, 1971, file photo, U.S. Ambassador George H.W. Bush gestures as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly during the China debate. He denied the U.S. formula was either a 'Two Chinas' or a 'One China and one Taiwan' plan. Bush died at the age of 94 on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. (AP Photo/File)
Guy Wathen | Tribune Review
Former President George Bush smiles as he walks to a waiting vehicle after landing at Arnold Palmer Airport in Latrobe on July 7, 2018.
In this March 6, 1968 file photo, George H.W. Bush, R-Texas, appears in Washington. Bush died at the age of 94 on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, File)
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
NFL commistioner Paul Tagl and former Pres. George Bush before a Steelers game on Sept. 9, 2002.
In this Nov. 10, 2007, file photo provided by the U.S. Army Golden Knights, former President George H.W. Bush free falls with Golden Knights parachute team member Sgt. 1st Class Mike Elliott, as he makes a dramatic entrance to his presidential museum during a rededication ceremony in College Station, Texas. Bush died at the age of 94 on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. (Sgt. 1st Class Kevin McDaniel/U.S. Army via AP, File)
In this Dec. 18, 1970, file photo, newly appointed United Nations Ambassador George H. Bush smiles. Bush has died at age 94. Family spokesman Jim McGrath says Bush died shortly after 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. (AP Photo/John Duricka, File)
In this Oct. 9, 1970 file photo, Rep. George H.W. Bush, R-Texas, talks with a group of young people at a rally in Houston, Texas. Bush died at the age of 94 on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. (AP Photo/File)
In this June 6, 1964, file photo George H.W. Bush, candidate for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, gets returns by phone at his headquarters in Houston, as his wife Barbara, smiles at the news. Bush died at the age of 94 on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky, File)
In this June 12, 2012 file photo, former President George H.W. Bush, and his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, arrive for the premiere of HBO's new documentary on his life near the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush has died at age 94. Family spokesman Jim McGrath says Bush died shortly after 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
George H.W. Bush, center, is sworn in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency by Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart, left, as Barbara Bush and President Gerald Ford, right, look on at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Bush died Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, at the age of 94. Bush was largely known for his work in public office, from his time as a Texas congressman and CIA director to his years in the White House as president and Ronald Reagan's vice president. But the World War II hero and great-grandfather also was an avid skydiver, played in the first-ever College World Series and was the longest-married president in U.S. history. (AP Photo/File)
In this Aug. 24, 1992, file photo, President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush walk with their dog Millie across the South Lawn as they return to the White House. Bush has died at age 94. Family spokesman Jim McGrath says Bush died shortly after 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — George Bush was a man with a matchless resume — combat pilot, diplomat, vice president, then president of the United States — but great communicator was not on the list. That was Ronald Reagan.

“Fluency in English is not something I’m often accused of,” he once said, demonstrating the point.

Nor was he given to the grand designs he once dismissed as “the vision thing.” He was a pragmatist, no showman. That was a style that worked for a term but not when he sought a second, losing, he thought, because he wasn’t “a good enough communicator.”

George Bush – the H.W. came into use later when his son George W. Bush became president – began his presidency in 1989 with a guarded declaration of independence. Guarded because conservatives never had been Bush fans and were determined to keep Republicans on the Reagan track. Independent because Bush did not want his administration seen as Reagan revisited.

“There’s going to be change, but hopefully a building on what’s happened,” Bush said in an AP interview before his 1989 inauguration. “I’m the one calling the shots. I’m the one who’s going to set the agenda.”

He had overcome the political detractors who called him a wimp, a Reagan lapdog, all resume and no action.

In 1966, Bush won the first of two terms in the House from Houston, and from the start his political ideology was hard to define. He considered himself a centrist; Texas Democratic foes called him a right winger. He supported civil rights legislation despite opposition at home. Once pro-choice on abortion, he became an ardent foe of abortion rights. He later said his views had evolved.

That seemed the case on more than one issue, fodder for his critics when he got into national politics in 1980 after a succession of appointed jobs: ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

He was the reliable loyalist, defending and deferring to the leaders who chose him. As party chairman, he echoed Richard Nixon’s Watergate denials almost to the end.

The loyalty instinct was part of Bush’s Republican establishment heritage. He was the son of Prescott Bush, who served as senator from Connecticut. In the post-World War II era, centrist eastern Republicans dominated party councils. It was a system of trust in which custom counted and rules were unspoken but understood.

When Bush ran for president in 1980, he was in a field of seven Republicans led by Reagan. That’s when he dismissed Reagan’s budget notions as “voodoo economics,” a line he would regret when as vice president he wound up defending the same program.

Bush narrowly upset Reagan in the Iowa caucuses in 1980. He claimed campaign momentum, “Big Mo” as he put it. Not for long. Reagan trounced Bush in the New Hampshire primary and easily won the nomination.

Two terms later, it was Bush’s turn. Nominated to succeed Reagan, he spoke of a kinder, gentler nation — and then balanced the soft words with hard ones, in the phrase that became a trademark until he erased it. “Read my lips,” he said. “No new taxes.”

While Bush would one day write that he had no use for cutthroat politics, his 1988 campaign certainly fit the description. He did not deal with what he wanted to do as president but with the undoing of Democrat Michael Dukakis. Bush questioned Dukakis’ commitment to the Pledge of Allegiance, denounced his Massachusetts policy on prison furloughs, called him an emotionless ice man beholden to liberal interest groups, blamed him for the pollution of Boston Harbor. The campaign was so negative and irrelevant that Richard M. Nixon and Barry Goldwater publicly told Bush he should deal with real issues.

No matter. Bush won easily. But he was a president without a blueprint, and within weeks of taking office he had to deny that his administration was drifting without clear purpose. He had to deal with the costly savings and loan crisis and bailout. The national debt had tripled since 1980, in part because of Reagan’s tax cuts and increased military spending.

Stuck for answers, Bush reread his lips and agreed in June 1990 to “tax revenue increases” in a budget deal with congressional Democrats to curb spending and raise taxes. He knew the political risk, writing in his diary that it “could mean a one-term presidency but it’s that important to the country.”

But conservative outrage over the tax reversal was submerged in a foreign crisis that fall after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. Bush always said he preferred dealing with foreign policy to coping with Congress in domestic affairs, and this was his kind of issue. He put together an unprecedented international coalition, sent American forces to the Middle East, and waged the Persian Gulf War that forced Iraq out of Kuwait early in 1991. It was over quickly, a U.S. victory Bush, in retirement, described “a signature historic event.”

But Saddam Hussein held power and Bush later acknowledged that he had miscalculated by expecting a regime change in Baghdad. That would not come until 2003, in the Iraq war launched by his son, President George W. Bush. Another son, Jeb Bush, made an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

With his 1991 war victory, the elder Bush’s approval ratings soared to record highs. But while he was winning abroad, the economy had slumped into recession at home. Bush didn’t seem to notice, and he would pay for that. Statistically, by 1992 the recession was over, but it didn’t feel that way to many Americans still facing economic woes.

“I know times are tough,” Bush said in New Hampshire. “I’ve known the economy is in free fall. I hope I’ve known it. Maybe I haven’t conveyed it as well as I should.”

The communication problem again. And it got no better when his aides gave him a cue card to remind him to tell voters how much he cared about their problem. Instead, he read them the card. “Message: I care.”

The hard-line negative campaigner of 1988 seemed distant and aloof in 1992. In a campaign debate, a woman asked how the national debt had personally affected each candidate: Bush, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton. A confusing question, since the debt does not affect individuals personally, but the other candidates figured out answers. Bush stumbled, taking the question literally and talking about interest rates. He rambled a bit, then said: “I’m not sure I get it. Help me with the question.”

Minutes later when the camera panned the stage, Bush was glancing at his watch, an everyday reflex but one that fed the opposition image of a bored, disinterested candidate.

The Democrats never let up. Bush was the candidate who didn’t get it.

Clinton did, and beat him. Even so, when Bush left office, the polls showed that well over half the country approved the man, even though they had spurned the president.

Perhaps that had something to do with an attitude he did succeed in communicating:

“Don’t confuse being soft with seeing the other guy’s point of view.”


By WALTER MEARS, AP Special Correspondent


Mears is a retired AP special correspondent.


See AP’s complete coverage of George H.W. Bush here:

Categories: Daily Gallery
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.