Memories of a Not Much Loved President Bush

by Thomas M. Sipos



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Like Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984, I see the telling of recent history changing before my eyes. This past week, commentators across the political spectrum praised the late President George H.W. Bush. But I don't recall him having gotten much love during his political career.

Here are my memories of Bush during the years 1980 to 1992. Yours might differ.

* Voodoo Economics

I first noticed Bush during his 1980 presidential run. Ronald Reagan was espousing "supply side economics," the theory that cutting tax rates increases productivity, and thus revenue. Bush derided that as "voodoo economics." That did not endear Bush to conservatives. They saw him as an "eastern elitist Rockefeller Republican," a once powerful, but even then dwindling, GOP clique.

Reagan won the Republican nomination, but he was considered by some to be dangerously far to the right. Opponents painted him as an extremist who would start a nuclear war with the Soviets. (Some leftists called him "Ronnie Ray-Gun" -- ha, ha, such wit!) And so Reagan was advised to balance his ticket with a safe, trusted, establishment man. Like George H.W. Bush.

Breaking with presidential tradition, Reagan was not a member of the CFR or Trilateral Commission. When he was shot, conspiracy theories abounded that the CFR had arranged the hit to reclaim the presidency. I saw posters to that effect in lower Manhattan, put up by a local Trotskyite party. No, I didn't believe it. But on both political extremes, "Bush the Trilateralist" was part of Bush's reputation at the time, so I mention it.

Over the next eight years, Bush's reputation evolved into that of a loyal, do-nothing vice president. It was pretty much what was expected of VPs then and now. Dick Cheney was the first, and only, active VP in my memory. Bush's main task was to attend funerals for foreign leaders. He attended three for Soviet heads of state in under two and a half years. Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko had died in quick succession. Here's a joke I heard at the time:


Q: What did Bush say upon meeting Gorbachev?

A: Hello. I'm George Bush, Vice President of the United States of America. If you die, I get to go to your funeral.


* A Kinder, Gentler Nation

When Bush ran for president in 1988, he described America as "a thousand points of light." A poetic summarization of his belief that Americans were eager to help the less fortunate. Randians didn't care for the catchphrase's altruistic assumptions, but libertarians could at least appreciate that Bush called for voluntarism rather than state handouts.

More problematic was Bush's call for "a kinder, gentler nation." Kinder than what? Than it had been under Reagan? The phrase seemed a rebuke. It didn't endear Bush to conservatives. Bush was selling himself as a former liberal who'd seen the light while serving under Reagan. Yet this "kinder, gentler" talk implied that the "voodoo economics" liberal still lurked beneath his born-again Reaganism.

Both those catchphrases from 1988 (and the following) were attributed to speechwriter Peggy Noonan.

* Read My Lips

More pleasing to conservatives was Bush's "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge. It was from his speech wherein he promised to dig in his heels. No way, no how, no matter the circumstances, would he raise taxes.


Some say Bush didn't win in 1988. Reagan did. Bush merely served out Reagan's third term. Maybe so. But Bush's "read my lips" catchphrase overcame many conservatives' doubts about him being a closet liberal. The speech certainly helped him win the election.

It arguably lost him reelection four years later.

* Read My Hips

I first saw the clip on C-SPAN. Bush had signed a deal with the Democrats to raise taxes. Following Bush on a morning jog, reporters badgered him about his breaking his "read my lips" pledge. They wanted a comment. Bush retorted with a dismissive "read my hips."

Conservatives were outraged. It wasn't so much that Bush broke his promise. It was his flippancy. It was said that conservatives were the only group that Bush genuinely disliked. He was respectful to everyone -- expect to conservatives. His "read my hips" brushoff reminded conservatives that Bush had never been one of us.

I don't think that Bush, or his people, ever appreciated the deep and lasting damage his flippant "finger" of a remark did to his support among conservatives. We loved Reagan. We accepted Bush. No more.

There were other, sometimes small things, that revealed Bush's inner liberal. He was quoted as telling aides, "I want to sign a civil rights bill." What I found noteworthy about this quote was its vague goal. He didn't cite a specific problem that needed fixing. He wanted to sign "a" civil rights bill. Any civil rights bill. Something for his legacy. He got his wish with the ADA. Did he sign it because he believed in its particular mandates? Or because it was the civil rights bill that happened to fall on his desk?

Bush hoped to win the admiration of polite (liberal) society by betraying his conservative base. Many Republicans have tried it and come away empty handed. Democrats continued to hate Bush. In 1992, The New Republic published Bushisms, a book that ridiculed him. I still own a copy.

In the leadup to the Gulf War, Bush called for "a New World Order." This tone deaf call to arms reminded conservatives of Bush's Trilateralist ties. Pat Buchanan's insurgency campaign (populist, nationalist, proto-Trumpian) demonstrated conservatives' growing disgust with "King George" (as Buchanan called him). After Buchanan dropped out of the race, his "Buchanan Brigades" turned to Ross Perot instead of returning to the GOP.

Further cementing Bush's "silver spoon" reputation was the UPC scanner scandal, wherein Bush supposedly revealed his ignorance about the device.


I think the accusation was unfair. Bush's defenders insisted that he knew about UPC scanners, and had simply remarked about them. That the media had taken his remark out of context, to make him appear ignorant. I'm inclined to believe Bush on this score.

* No Fire in the Belly

Bush ran a remarkably inept reelection campaign (to the extent that he even campaigned). Like many moderate Republicans, he spent more energy defeating a conservative rival for the nomination than in fighting the Democrat once he secured the nomination. Clinton began campaigning in 1991 and never stopped. Bush stopped after Buchanan dropped out.

As his poll numbers dipped, Bush demonstrated remarkable complacency. Critics said he had no "fire in the belly." I remember driving down Sunset Blvd., listening to Rush Limbaugh interview the leader of the Orange County Young Americans for Freedom. The Los Angeles riots had hurt Bush's support in California. The smug YAF leader "personally guaranteed" that Orange County would deliver California to Bush. Instead, California went blue for the first time since 1964. It's stayed blue ever since.

Bush denied that he had no "fire in the belly." His announced strategy was to wait for the October debates. Trying to sound enthusiastic, he'd say, "Oh boy, I can't wait to get in there and debate!" And yet he did wait. By which time, he was too far behind to catch up.

Did Bush even want to win? Former New York City mayor Edward I. Koch didn't think so. After the election, Koch spoke of having met Bush at the White House in 1992. Bush had said to him, "Oh boy, I can't wait to get out of here." Koch said he knew the feeling, having himself served three wearying terms as mayor.

After his half-hearted campaign, Bush got his wish and Clinton got the White House.

Bush's domestic policies were liberal. His post-Cold War foreign policy was expansionist, ignoring a golden opportunity to reduce American military spending and promote peace by matching Soviet withdrawals from Eastern Europe and the Mideast with similar American withdrawals. His legacy on both the domestic and international front leaves little to brag about.