Richard Nisley

Bush 41–a modest man of supreme accomplishments
History - American Released - Dec 03, 2018
George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, is our most under-rated of recent presidents. This is not merely the author’s opinion, but the opinion of historians who, in a recent poll, rated Bush 21st among presidents—middling rank. His accomplishments, particularly in foreign affairs, would suggest otherwise. He (1) skillfully judged the dissolution of the Soviet Union and bucked the advice of foreign policy hard-liners by not interfering, believing (correctly) the failed Soviet system would collapse under the weight of its massed ineptitude, and would, in turn, release Eastern Bloc countries from its iron grip. He (2) forged a coalition of some 30 nations to halt and repel the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And (3) he intervened successfully in the arrest of Manuel Noriega, drug trafficker and corrupt dictator of Panama.

Where Bush comes up short is with his management of the U.S. economy, which cost him a second term as president. I have not been an admirer of George H.W. Bush—until reading this book, about George H.W. Bush's presidency. The author Timothy Naftali is a story-teller of the first rank who emphasizes Bush’s intelligence, judgement and perseverance. If Bush had a failing, it was his modesty—an unwillingness to blow his own horn.

Running for president, Bush was tagged as being a wimp, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. In fact, he was a bonafide war hero. In World War II, as the youngest Air Force pilot stationed in the South Pacific; he flew 58 missions and made 126 carrier landings. On his 50th mission his plane was severely damaged by shrapnel. Displaying true grit under fire, he completed his bombing run before having to bail out.

After his discharge from service in 1945, he attended Yale, then moved to Texas where he became a self-made millionaire in the oil business, before the age of 40. After that, he focused on politics. He served two terms in the House of Representatives but lost twice running for the U.S. Senate. All the while he made friends with people in high places. President Richard Nixon appointed him Ambassador to the United Nations and then chairman of the Republican National Committee. President Gerald Ford appointed him Envoy to China and then Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. However, these were merely consolation prizes, after having been turned down by both Nixon and Ford as a potential running mates. In 1980, at long last, he got the nod, as Ronald Reagan’s running mate. He served under Reagan for two terms, before turning his attention to the prize he had wanted all along—the presidency. He was elected in 1988, as the Cold War was coming to end.

Bush exhibited what the author calls “unexpected greatness” in keeping the drama of Eastern Europe’s Revolution from cascading into a broader East-West crisis. Bush kept his head and refrained from inflammatory rhetoric. He avoided rubbing Moscow’s nose in the reality of its collapsing empire and went out of his way to engage America’s former enemy in the responsible management of the Cold War’s end, masterfully so in negotiating German reunification and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from central Europe. In the Middle East, meanwhile, Bush was masterful in building a coalition of nations against Saddam Hussein’s hostile invasion of Kuwait. Military action was swift, well-coordinated, and stunningly effective in driving out Iraq’s famed Republic Guard. Thanks to broad world support, the U.S. military actually had a cash surplus at the close of the war. Also, it was the U.S. military’s first victory since World War II.

Where Bush had trouble was in dealing with the slumping economy, and with a growing faction of doctrinaire conservatives who couldn’t see the forest for the trees in refusing to compromise with the leader of their own party. Led by Newt Gingrich, rather than supporting the president’s economic policies and thereby helping him get re-elected, they fought him and helped elect Bill Clinton instead. Writes the author: “Bush’s problem was that while he was held responsible for the financial mess left by Reagan, no one seemed to give him credit for trying to fix it.” The growing conservative movement led to the candidacy of Patrick Buchanan— who tried and failed to take the Republican Party’s nomination away from Bush—and to the candidacy of quirky independent candidate Ross Perot. As a result an impression was created that the nation lacked genuine leadership under President Bush. Partly to blame was his lack of charisma as a public speaker, and a voter base that had never been strong. Says the author: Bush’s support among voters "was as shallow as it was wide." As a leader, his effectiveness was in one-to-one conversations in the perennial “smoke-fill rooms” where decisions are made and consensus reached. On the campaign stump, however, his speeches lacked the passion that drives voters to the polls on election day. By the fall of the 1992, the economy was in recovery but Bush failed to get this message across. His campaign rhetoric was measured, reasonable, and calm, but out of touch with voter sentiments, while Clinton empathized with unhappy voters (“I feel your pain”), striking again and again at where Bush was weakest. “It’s the economy, stupid,” Clinton reminded his staffers. When it counted most, Bush would not get down and dirty as politicians often do when elections are closely contested, and it cost him dearly–a second term as president.

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