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Bush Sr.’s profile of some courage

The no-tax promise wasn’t the worst political sin, but it was a disappointment

Former president George Bush, pictured here in 1996, promised he wouldn’t raise taxes during a 1988 debate with Michael Dukakis —  but he did anyway.
Former president George Bush, pictured here in 1996, promised he wouldn’t raise taxes during a 1988 debate with Michael Dukakis — but he did anyway.The Boston Globe

In May, former President George H.W. Bush is slated to receive the 2014 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award for choosing to break his own famous promise: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

Bush, at 89, “relishes the twilight,” reports Time Magazine, and no one should begrudge him that. For backers of the elder Bush, it’s legacy-cementing time. Where better to do it than in the House of Camelot, where myth and reality intermingle?

Here’s the reality check with Bush and his no-new-tax promise: If the decision to break it is a testament to political courage, making it in the first place was the essence of political expedience.

In announcing the award, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation starts the Bush courage clock in 1990. That’s when the Republican president backed a budget compromise with a Democratic-controlled Congress that raised taxes.


The alternative was a presidential veto and its risk of government shutdown and automatic budget cuts. As we now know, it’s preferable to avoid such dismal consequences. And, it’s true, Bush’s decision to do so ran counter to a pledge he made when he accepted his party’s nomination to take on Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.

The convention speech attacked Dukakis for opposing school prayer and the death penalty and for supporting abortion and gun control. It also laid the foundation for the infamous race-baiting Willie Horton ad that was used to attack Dukakis. “I’m the one who believes it is a scandal to give a weekend furlough to a hardened first degree killer who hasn’t even served enough time to be eligible for parole,” declared Bush in New Orleans.

But the passage everyone remembered focused on the voters’ wallets.

“My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will,” said Bush. “The Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push me again, and I’ll say to them, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’ ”

Some advisers later said they feared the line went too far, and blamed Roger Ailes for keeping it in. But Bush was the one who zealously spoke the words; he could have made the call to strike them. Instead, he stuck with what he decided were the political needs of the moment. He lived to regret that when he signed onto the budget compromise that many believe led to his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton.


The simple story of a president brave enough to stand up to his party — especially on taxes — has a courageous ring to it. But earlier chapters tell a tale less about principle and more about calculation.

As a presidential candidate in 1980, Bush called out fellow Republican Ronald Reagan for promoting an economic agenda that included, among other things, a major tax cut. He said it was impossible to balance the budget and reduce taxes, as Reagan promised. Then he went further, labeling Reagan’s proposed tax cut “voodoo economic policy.”

Reagan won the nomination and chose Bush as his running mate, despite his primary attacks. From that point, Bush embraced Reaganomics and tried to deny he ever uttered the word “voodoo.” But there was documentation to prove otherwise.

Worse political sins have been committed. With Bush, the disappointment is that he chose to play to the lowest common denominator, instead of leveraging his intelligence and pedigree to tell people what they didn’t want to hear.

Still, when the economic voodoo ran out on his watch, he faced up to it.

Now, the heirs to one political dynasty are honoring the patriarch of another, for what some might call courage and others consider just deserts.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.