There were two distinct George H.W. Bushes — the candidate who ran for office and the president he became when elected.
With his passing last week, at the age of 94, the latter has received an appropriate reappraisal. Though he left office after one term, Bush was a far better president than many viewed him to be at the time. But it’s hard to escape the fact that the former — his aggressive, nasty, bare-knuckled approach to politics — has come to define his political legacy, particularly within the modern Republican Party.
No element of Bush’s presidency stands taller than his foreign policy record.
His defining moment was the Gulf War and his response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, to which he assembled an extraordinary multilateral coalition that included America’s European allies and key Arab countries. He worked with the Soviet Union and within the framework of the United Nations to give an international imprimatur to reversing Iraq’s aggression — and even got Japan and Germany to help pay for the war.
In the closing days of the Cold War — and at the birth of what he would not incorrectly call a “new world order” — Bush ensured that the international norm against cross-border attacks and seizure of territory via war would be upheld by the international community. Above all, he didn’t try to bite off more than he could chew by widening the war’s aims and toppling Hussein from power.
In Europe he handled the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Soviet Union with caution and prudence — and respect for a vanquished enemy. In doing so, he helped contribute, in some small measure, to the era of peace, prosperity, and political freedom that emerged from what could have been a much more cataclysmic and violent event.
The convening of the Madrid Conference in 1991, which focused on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, is worthy of particular praise. It helped pave the way for Yitzhak Rabin’s election in 1992 and eventually the signing of the Oslo accord a year later.
On the negative side of the ledger is his handling of conflict in the Balkans, which with a bit more American attention might have averted the bloodletting that took place there throughout the 1990s.
On domestic policy, Bush’s record is more mixed. It’s true that in 1990 he agreed to reverse his “Read My Lips” pledge and raise taxes in order to shrink the deficit. He signed the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act. But all three measures were the result of pressure from congressional Democrats rather than Bush’s own motivation. His ramping up of the drug war and his inattention to the HIV/AIDS crisis are black marks on Bush’s presidential tenure.
But what is perhaps more remarkable about the positive aspects of Bush’s record is that Republicans have imitated practically none of them.
Raising taxes, passing civil rights legislation, signing environmental protection bills, compromising with Democrats — all of these are anathema to modern Republicans. Bush’s foreign policy legacy is an even sadder story. George W. Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq repudiated his father’s cautious and realist strategy during the Gulf War. Trump’s go-it-alone “America First” mantra is a complete rejection of Bush’s coalition-building and support for multilateralism.
Many pundits have spent the past days lauding Bush for his character, decency, and kindness — three attributes that stand in sharp contrast to the current president. But kindness and decency were not the means by which George H.W. Bush ran for president. Many will remember the crass racial dog-whistling of “Willie Horton” during the 1988 presidential campaign against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. But the grubbiness of that campaign went much further. He used the cudgel of fear over rising crime rates — specifically Dukakis’s opposition to the death penalty — to further increase racial divisions. With his attacks on Dukakis over supporting a Massachusetts court ruling outlawing the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, Bush questioned his opponent’s patriotism.
Four years later, he took a similar approach in attacking Bill Clinton for traveling to Moscow and protesting the Vietnam War. Like practically every Republican since, Bush didn’t simply attack his political opponents; he sought to delegitimize them.
Bush’s political cynicism had long been one of his defining traits. In 1980, he derided Ronald Reagan’s call for massive tax cuts as “voodoo economics” and then dutifully became a proponent of such policies after joining Reagan’s presidential ticket. He went from abortion rights supporter to an anti-abortion Republican as Reagan’s vice president — and, as president, would nominate one of the most conservative members of the Supreme Court today, Clarence Thomas. At the onset of his political career, when he ran for office in Texas in 1964, he publicly opposed the Civil Rights Act, in a demonstration of pure political opportunism.
Over and over, Bush smoothed his path to the White House by jettisoning one core belief after another. In doing so he not only helped dig the grave of the moderate wing of the Republican Party — of which he had been a standard-bearer — but he also modeled a style of politics that other opportunistic Republicans would imitate. Bush, like many Republicans, wanted to have it both ways: an all-means-necessary approach to politics and a “kinder, gentler” governing style. But over the years, Republican voters have responded far more viscerally to the former rather than the latter.
For all of Bush’s patrician demeanor — for the decorum and decency that he demonstrated as a former president — there is a straight line between Willie Horton and Donald Trump’s racist demagoguery of undocumented immigrants. Bush’s presidential record remains impressive, and history has given him the credit he is due. Unfortunately, that’s not the part of his legacy that has lived on in American politics.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.