George H.W. Bush: The Power and Perils of Pragmatist

With the death this weekend of President George H.W. Bush, two narratives have dominated the news cycle. The first paints Bush 41 as a paragon of political competence, a grown-up who skillfully (if not dynamically) managed the US and the international community through a significant period of domestic and international transition (the contrast with the current Republican President is usually explicit and always present in these stories).

The popular counter-narrative is to charge mainstream news outlets of whitewashing Bush’s legacy and ignoring problematic if not outright immoral policies and outcomes promoted or implemented by Bush 41, failures or intentional policies that left many, especially minorities – African Americans, LGBTQ communities – worse off for George Bush being in the White House (these criticisms also include the multiple accusations against Bush for groping women in his later years, which even in the #MeToo era has been largely ignored) .

Both narratives, however differing in tone, point toward a single defining characteristic of George H.W. Bush’s presidency: an unwavering dedication to political pragmatism, a principle which he followed internationally with a great deal of large scale success and pursued domestically to a fault, ultimately losing the Presidency because of it.

In the gear-up to Bush’s 1988 run for president, he famously dismissed the need for “the vision thing,” a bold, overarching theme or goal for where he wanted to lead the country. This constraint on putting his own stamp on the country and the world was coupled with a period in history in which the United States’ power to shape the world order was at its highest.  The Soviet Union collapsed, and with it communism throughout Eastern Europe. Bush could have used the moment to act as a conquering victor, trumpeting American defeat of global communism and imposing US friendly political and economic regimes throughout the former Communist Bloc.

Instead, as political scientist and historian Mary Elise Sarotte notes in her excellent books 1989 and The Collapse, Bush was careful to avoid public displays of triumphalism, worried that such a tone would cause more practical problems than the symbolic gain was worth.  The President calculated that a sober and non-celebratory approach to the transitions within Eastern Europe would naturally trend toward a US-dominated and approved political and economic order as long as the former communist countries were allowed to work out their transformations with dignity and respect. Publicly, he deflected from this thoughtful strategy with a dismissal based in his stoic and unexciting image: “I’m not an emotional kind of guy.”

Bush 41’s other area of greatest foreign triumph came with the Persian Gulf War.  Even before his son’s Iraq debacle created a stark contrast with the first war against the country, Operation Desert Storm was widely hailed for Bush 41’s assembling of the largest military coalition since WWII (even getting the staunchly non-interventionist China – where Bush had served as an unofficial US ambassador during a time strained official relations – to tacitly back the invasion.  Once on the ground, Bush allowed his military commanders to conduct perhaps the most successful major war in US history, methodically dismantling the Iraqi army in a manner of days. Having achieved the stated goal of repelling Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, Bush resisted temptation to shift the war goals by overthrowing Hussein or conquering Iraq, a practical short-term decision with much more deadly long term consequences for both the Iraqi people (such as the Kurds in the north, who were inspired to rise up and then crushed once it became clear that US backing was not forthcoming) and the larger world (as Bush 43 and his neoconservative advisors sought to “finish the job” in Iraq).

This emphasis on short-term expediency was equally evident in Bush 41’s domestic policies, but it is here where many Americans are more viscerally aware of the long-term consequences that Bush purposely avoided contemplating.  Bush’s pre-presidential legacy on race had been a mixed bag: he opposed federal Civil Rights legislation in the early 1960s but eventually supported later Civil Rights laws. Still, many black Americans remember Bush for hiring as his campaign manager Lee Atwater, the pioneer of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy (i.e. “coded” racism, “by 1968 you can’t say nigger…”) and releasing one of the most race-baiting political ads in recent memory, the infamous, fear-mongering Willie Horton ad.

Black Americans also remember Bush’s response to the crack epidemic: a stepping up of the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of black men (even seemingly entrapping a black teenager in a drug deal setup to be used for a tv ad.  This fight against black men drugs is even more ironic (wait, hypocritical, that’s the word I want) given longstanding circumstantial evidence that the CIA, including during the time that Bush led the agency, facilitated cocaine smuggling into the US from Latin America in the midst of its fight against communism.

Bush’s legacy with minority rights is otherwise more complicated: he was better than Reagan, though perhaps not by much, when it came to the connected issues of LGBTQ rights and the AIDS crisis. His strongest promotion of minority rights centered around advocacy and legislation for Americans with Disabilities, driven largely by his own family’s history.

I don’t know if George H.W. Bush held any particular biases against black or gay Americans, but it seems evident that he was willing, not always but often, to let the biases of his advisors and supporters win the day in the name of political expediency. This is perhaps easy to do when you eschew a long term vision for where the country is going, even as you enact policies that determine the very future you refuse to contemplate.  Bush’s lack of vision will likely lead to Bush 41’s presidency being remembered for what it was not: idealistic (Carter), petulant (Trump), ideological (Reagan, Bush 43), charismatic (Clinton) or inspiring (Obama). Furthermore, George H.W. Bush’s almost religious belief in pragmatism left a mixed and complicated legacy, in which his cheerleaders and critics are both right.

140 thoughts on “George H.W. Bush: The Power and Perils of Pragmatist”

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