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RIP George H.W. Bush

Scott MacKay remembers President George H.W. Bush, son of a senator and father of a president

As a grateful nation bids farewell to President George H.W. Bush, we can’t deny that much of the media coverage praising the one-term Republican president is a reflection on the Republican who currently holds the Oval office.

While Bush was known for much kindness and decency, a waspy Calvinist guilt and self-deprecating humor, Trump has forged a well-deserved reputation as an egomaniac, king of twitter rants and a norm-shattering presidency. Bush’s youthful WWII military service is also in sharp relief to Cadet Bone Spurs and his shameful Vietnam draft dodging.

Bush was a fairly traditional Republican. He waited his turn and performed as well as he could in a number of party and government posts. He served in Congress, was CIA director, Chinese diplomat and chairman of the Republican National Committee during the gloomy era of Richard Nixon’s Watergate.

A patrician New Englander, born in Massachusetts, educated at Phillips Academy, Andover and Yale, he was the son of a moderate Connecticut U.S. Senator, Prescott Bush and father of President George W. Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He joined the Navy shortly after his prep school graduation. He received aviation training in Rhode Island at the Charlestown Naval Air Station and become a war hero flyer.

He would move to the Texas oil patch after Yale graduation to seek his fortune as a young man and plant his political career in the conservative Houston suburbs, not New England. The result was sometimes not pretty. His career was a tribute to pragmatism and survival in blood red Texas. Thus he wasn’t always the moderate Republican many of the tributes and obituaries have focused on.

As a young U.S. House member from Texas, he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Later, as his career advanced and the GOP became much more Houston than Boston, he straddled traditions, embracing Texas-style campaigning and culture, pretending perhaps, as he professed a love for country music, pitching horseshoes and pork rinds.

In a move that would be considered political suicide nowadays in the south, Bush voted to support Planned Parenthood while in the House.

On the campaign circuit he was pragmatic, doing what it took to win, even if it didn’t pass the John Gardener –Common Cause smell test. In recent days there has been much emphasis on his mostly successful foreign policies, including the short, strategic Gulf War and managing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. He has been lauded for supporting environmental measures –including the Clean Air Act –that the current Republican crew in Washington, D.C. detests.

After the Gulf War Bush’s job approval rating soared to a stratospheric  89 percent in the Gallup Poll. But he didn’t pay enough attention to a looming recession and the rightward lurch of his party. He pursued a moderate economic agenda and raised the ire of conservatives by raising taxes so the deficit wouldn’t get out of hand. This wasn’t a huge surprise; he lambasted the supply-side economics pushed by Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski  as “voodoo economics” during his 1980 presidential campaign. Many movement conservatives never really trusted Bush and were upset after he broke his “read my lips –no new taxes” vow.

Lest we forget:  there was also Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court and the infamous racist Willie Horton television ad used against Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential contest won by Bush.  (On his deathbed, Lee Atwater, the take-no-prisoners  consultant who cut the ad, apologized to Dukakis for the nasty Horton spot.)

During his eight long years as Ronald Reagan’s vice-president, Bush toiled in the party vineyards, becoming a king of funerals and chicken dinners. He stayed on the Republican message and came across as a genial and personable fellow. 

I spent four hours riding in a car with Bush during the 1980 Vermont and New Hampshire presidential primary campaigns. After he tired of answering policy and political questions, the chat turned to baseball. He was a serious fan of the sport he had excelled in at Yale and befriended his hero Ted Williams in later years. Bush jumped out to an early lead after winning the Iowa caucus, but faded after losing the New Hampshire primary to Reagan. He dropped out of the race early enough to mend fences with the Reagan camp and was chosen as Reagan’s vice-presidential  nominee.

He would often come to campaign for Rhode Island Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Claudine Schneider and Gov. Ed DiPrete. The local reporter who had the best access to Bush was M. Charles Bakst, longtime political reporter and columnist for the Providence Journal. (In those days, the newspaper had such a thing as a political columnist.) Bakst and Bush shared a mutual love for baseball, politics and (except for the mediocre food) their prep school alma mater, Andover.

When he ran again for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, Bush battled what a Newsweek cover story famously called the “Wimp Factor.” His preppy affectations were much lampooned. Yet as the outpouring of nostalgia and affection this week have shown, in retrospect Bush’s caution and old fashioned manners stand out in contrast to today’s corrosive political culture.

‘If the Clintons are the careless Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Barack Obama is a Camus-like figure of existential estrangement and Donald Trump is a flimflam man out of “Huckebery Finn,” H.W. was Bertie Woster, an airy WASP propelled to the top by the old boys’ network,” wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd upon his death.

Dowd was a major lampooner of Bush, but she explained that the two has a decent personal relationship. Bush would grouse –as every president eventually does—about his press coverage, but he never went to the extreme of labeling reporters Ibsen-like enemies of the people.

As was the case with a one-term Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, Bush had an exemplary ex-presidency. He worked tirelessly on charitable causes, notably partnering with Bill Clinton to raise millions for hurricane relief after the 2005 Katrina disaster in New Orleans. He parachuted out of an airplane at age 90. He returned to New England in summers at his family’s retreat on the Maine coast in Kennebunkport, where he was loved by the locals.

He had the deep love for his country and service to it that was emblematic of the World War II generation. What the young today seem not to understand is that this generation believed that if society had to be defended, those who shared the benefits of that society should participate in its defense. Kennedys, Bushes, Pells and Roosevelts all served in World War II. That doesn’t happen much these days. Bush, like John McCain, had a deep desire to serve and give back to a nation that gave him much.