The Many Transitions of George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush will be remembered as a transitional figure in American and world politics. He presided over the shift of power within the Republican Party from the moderate Eastern Establishment to its activist conservative wing, the end of the Cold War, and a major acceleration of globalization.
It does no disservice to the memory of the man to conclude that he handled some of these transitions better than others. Bush’s embrace of conservatism was awkward and incomplete, from the moment the patrician New Englander turned Texas oilman was ill-cast as a Barry Goldwater disciple in a 1964 Senate race (he lost) to his turn as Ronald Reagan’s tax-hiking White House successor. His rightward shift mirrored the party’s, but his presidency strengthened the perception that the GOP establishment was content to manage conservative expectations rather than deliver on them.
The last Republican president to genuinely pair—and even restrain—neoconservatives on his national security team with realists, his skillful handling of the collapse of communism in Europe and the abolition of apartheid in South Africa remain his crowning achievements. It is hard to imagine the neocons to whom he bequeathed the GOP foreign-policy establishment reacting to the breakup of the Soviet Union with such equanimity and restraint.
If Bush kept the United States out of the major conflicts that could have arisen in the aftermath of the USSR’s implosion, he popularized U.S. entry into little wars that whet the country’s appetite for greater interventionism, culminating in the tragedies of this century. The most consequential of these was Operation Desert Storm. Far more successful and justified than his son’s Iraq adventure over a decade later, in no small part because he assembled a real international coalition against a meaningful act of aggression that wisely stopped well short of Baghdad, it laid the groundwork for what was to come.
The Persian Gulf War was widely seen as a smashing triumph for the emerging New World Order, such that few Democrats with presidential ambitions dared vote against a second war with Iraq in 2002 to 2003. America was on the march against borders-transgressing tyrants and tin-pot dictators. Even then there were early signs that this new role as policeman of the world would not always be universally embraced: for a small but influential number of conservatives, it was the first major U.S. war they opposed (mine didn’t come until Kosovo).
One of those conservatives was Pat Buchanan, a founding editor of this magazine. While Buchanan challenged Bush’s backsliding from the Reagan agenda in the 1992 Republican primaries, he was also among a populist trio of presidential candidates who pushed back against post-Cold War hubris on trade, foreign policy, and national sovereignty, along with Democrat Jerry Brown and independent Ross Perot. All three could correctly be seen as forerunners of Donald Trump.
Bush was as responsible for the North American Free Trade Agreement as Bill Clinton, having substantially negotiated the deal. He signed legislation increasing immigration by 40 percent as illegal entries continued unabated after the Reagan amnesty and the subsequent abandonment of promised enforcement.
“I like George Bush very much and support him and always will. But I disagree with him when he talks of a kinder, gentler America. I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist,” Trump, the future president, complained to Playboy in 1990.
The challenges facing the country were changing. After an auspicious start to his presidency, the American people ushered Bush out of office amid the lingering after-effects of a recession that was unusually hard on Republican-leaning voters and Perot claiming nearly a fifth of the popular vote. While the media regularly uses dead Republicans as a cudgel with which to beat living ones, Bush’s undeniable class and decency—to say nothing of his personal heroism during World War II—deservedly stands in favorable contrast to the next generation of American political leaders, ranging from Clinton and Newt Gingrich to Trump and Harry Reid.
Bush also quietly regretted the radicalization of Republican foreign policy unleashed by his own son. His loyal national security adviser Brent Scowcroft publicly opposed the invasion of Iraq in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. But 41 himself was surprisingly scathing in his assessment of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld’s influence on the younger Bush’s administration when interviewed for a book by Jon Meacham.
I stand by my assessment of Bush as the greatest living president at the time of his death. He was also one of the better men in politics. But Buchanan was right to primary him.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.