He made a simple promise: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Then, as president in 1990, he agreed to a bipartisan budget that increased taxes. Conservatives howled, and the deal helped sink George H. W. Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign.
But on Sunday, Bush aides and members of the Kennedy family came together to celebrate the former president’s willingness to buck party orthodoxy and reach across the aisle, qualities they said are sorely lacking in today’s Washington.
Bush was given the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award,” for his support of the deal that cost him politically but has been credited with laying the foundation for the surpluses that followed when President Clinton took office.
Bush’s granddaughter, Lauren Bush Lauren, accepted the award on behalf of the 89-year-old former president, in a ceremony that former White House aides described as a mild salve for the rebuke Bush was dealt in the 1992 election.
“George Bush did the right thing for the country, and it’s nice to see people are beginning to appreciate it,” John H. Sununu, who was Bush’s chief of staff, said at the ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester.
Andrew H. Card Jr., who was deputy chief of staff, said the former president’s willingness to break his no-new-taxes pledge should serve as a beacon for current members of Congress who refuse to negotiate.
“We have to be careful with absolutes,” Card said. “People who are stuck with an absolute view of the world fail to recognize certain realities in the world. We want our government to work well.”
Jack Schlossberg, President Kennedy’s grandson, presented the award to Lauren.
“America’s gain was President Bush’s loss,” Schlossberg said, “and his decision to put country above party and political prospects make him an example of a modern profile in courage that is all too rare.”
Bush made his “Read my lips” pledge during the 1988 campaign, believing the economy would improve, Sununu said. But after taking office, the economy worsened and forecasters predicted the federal deficit could double.
In 1990, Bush reached an agreement with congressional Democrats on a budget that raised taxes while setting limits on spending. The deal aimed to cut the deficit by about $500 billion over five years.
Bush knew he would be pilloried for breaking his promise, but “realized he had to do the right thing, and he took the political hit,” Sununu said.
“Candidly speaking, my grandfather didn’t want to raise taxes in 1990, but in our constitutional system of governance Congress also gets a say — and besides that, he felt he owed the American people action and results,” Lauren said.
Olympia Snowe, the former Republican senator from Maine who was serving in the US House at the time, voted against the deal. She was facing a tough reelection campaign, and was opposed to the tax increases, she said.
Still, Snowe said, the bipartisan deal should be a model for a deeply polarized and paralyzed Congress that seems to lurch from crisis to crisis.
“It’s tragic for the country when you consider how little has been accomplished because of their unwillingness to work together and build consensus on key questions,” Snowe said. “This is a moment to understand how it can work.”
Sununu had a different take. He said President Obama should draw a lesson from Bush’s willingness to negotiate with members of the opposite party.
“This proves that a president has to lead in order to get bipartisanship, and all this concern that it’s Congress that is holding it back is wrong,” he said. “It is a president who has to lead. That’s why a president is getting the award.”
Lauren read a statement from her grandfather thanking the Kennedy Library for the honor.
“At age 89 and 7/8, let me assure you kind words really do matter,” Bush’s message said. “Thank you again for remembering what our team tried to do, lo, those many years ago.”
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.