Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A WASP Elegy for George H.W. Bush’s Centenary

They do not make men like that anymore.


Like most people my age, I have few visceral feelings about George H.W. Bush. My parents were late boomers and Reagan Revolutionaries. I was born into the Rolling Stone reader–occupied United States of Bill Clinton, and my very first political memories were of Lewinsky scandal TV coverage. Bush v. McCain (and then Gore) inaugurated electoral politics for me, this great neverending day at the races that I now watch for money. 

On the other hand, the elder Bush was just sort of there—a placeholder between Reagan, regarded in the Russo household as a living saint on par with Mother Teresa and the Pope, and Clinton, the child of wrath. “Read my lips,” a handful of verbal gaffes, the incongruous annual parachuting—George H.W. Bush was just a grab-bag of qualities that didn’t really hang together as much in the mind. The main impression from his photographs: a discomfort with smiling. After his son’s accession, even how to refer to him casually was elusive—Bush Sr.? Bush I? H.W.? 41?


Now I’m a little older, and, if not exactly smarter or wiser, I do know more things and have seen more types of people. H.W. is still a slippery character, but a more coherent one in my mind—male, pale, and Yale, a late prince of the Establishment, the Interests, or whatever you want to call that old clubby elite of mostly Northeastern prep schoolers who used to run significant portions of our country. (Although, in a detail often elided among our latter-day apostles of elite theory, less of the country than our current technocrats do.) He was also a man of the incipient deep state—an alleged CIA agent and an actual director of that esteemed organ. As Steve Sailer wrote in these pages earlier this year,

There exists a conspiracy theory that Bush’s oil platforms provided logistical support to the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion of nearby Cuba. But this is one of those conspiracy theories that sounds so reasonable—why wouldn’t a Skull & Bones man help out his friends in the Company?—that nobody finds it intriguing.

In that article, Sailer details the intertwining fortunes of the Bush family, their business, their politics, and Mexico. In some ways, it is not unlike Bill Buckley’s family history—and no coincidence. We’re talking about the WASPs here, the people who used to run the Establishment (or the Interests) and, in its early iterations, the deep state. I guess this is the way I think of H.W. now: the sort of person who used to run things, more or less openly but not ostentatiously—you can see them here and there, just out of the corner of your eye.

They weren’t perfect. Their old-fashioned liberalism opened the door to the cultural chaos of the latter half of the 20th century and their own demise; they brought us NAFTA and affirmative action and the collapse of mainstream Protestantism. Yet they were a sort of solution, those people. Bush was a war hero; it was his country to fight for, after all. And would NATO have been transformed into an ideological empire if H.W. had won a second term? I somehow doubt he would have jumped into Bosnia with Clintonian-Albrightian aplomb; certainly his administration’s diplomatic posture was cautious of NATO expansion and conciliatory in outlook toward the former Soviet states. Nor does it seem unimaginable that the man who (by conventional wisdom) got washed out for raising taxes would have met the fiscal conservative moment in Congress. (If you believe we live in the same national system that we did 25 years ago, meditate on the fact that in 1998 a balanced budget amendment was a live political option.) We’re maybe not so enthusiastic about the WASPs as Ross Douthat—I mean, look at the name on this column—but they had their points. On his centenary, I’m inclined to take H.W.’s good along with the bad, of which there is plenty.

When I was in college—another living fossil of WASP civilization, not Yale, but the other one—there was a monumental statue outside the university gates near our subway stop. It was titled “Omphalos,” and, like most products of the 1970s, it was very ugly—a 15- or 20-foot pile of reddish granite that didn’t look like anything in particular. It was removed in my sophomore year following a dispute between the university and the subway authority over who was responsible for its upkeep. Nobody was too sad to see it go, but to me it seemed symbolic in a wistful sort of way. “Omphalos” is the Greek word for a navel; the Omphalos was a belly-button-shaped stone at Delphi—the center of the world and the marker of an oracle’s location. It seemed as if a sign of some divine favor was being taken from someone. Justly, maybe. But the passing of the glory of the world is always a solemn sight. A hundred years from his birth, we can say we will not see H.W.’s like again.