Religion & Liberty Online

3 things to understand about President George H. W. Bush

There are few men who define an era, a school of thought or anything of the sort. There are even in smaller numbers those who, once dead, give us a feeling that along with them a whole era comes to an end. It seems to me that this is the correct reading of the death of the 41st president of the United States (1989-1993). With George H. Bush, we have lost not only a man but a style and a special kind of idea. We have an opportunity to assess the legacy of a man who, despite having served for only four years, is far more critical than a careless or naive person might think. For better or for worse, the country in which we live now was largely shaped by people who saw the world as Bush did.

The first thing to understand about President Bush, who passed away on Friday at the age of 94, is that he was a member of the Northeast coast elite; a group of men and women who has their origins, or believed to have, in the early Protestants who arrived in colonial America. The mission to erect the shining city upon the hill has always been their moral compass and the rule whereby they judged themselves guardians of US institutions. So President Bush was not an ordinary man. He was something like an American aristocrat, and especially a member of a dynasty. He had a historical sense that cannot easily be replicated.

President Bush’s intellectual background was that of his father, Prescott Bush. He understood the meaning of social class and historical mission and so could easily be mistaken for a Burkean conservative or a traditionalist. However, in practice he was a pragmatic politician, a “wonder boy” to use the definition given to Hebert Hoover by Calvin Coolidge, someone who believes he has all the answers and the government is his instrument.

Prescott Bush (1895-1972), the patriarch of the family, was the archetype of New England’s high-class gentleman. He attended Yale and made a career in Wall Street as a successful banker before embarking on politics. The Republican Prescott Bush was neither a conservative nor an old-school progressive. Serving as a senator from Connecticut, he was a supporter of the major New Deal reforms and developed deep connections with the eugenic Planned Parenthood.

Prescott Bush was both an internationalist and a champion of social reformism without, however, having any sympathy for the blue collar class, a fundamental component of the FDR’s New Deal coalition, which placed him on the Republican side of the political dispute. In the still very poorly understood US post-war political dynamics, he and the Connecticut GOP represented liberalism while the conservative leader was the Catholic Democrat Senator Thomas J. Dodd, a man who could not even hear of hippies and communists without showing his deep contempt for both.

The second thing that must be understood about the late President Bush is that he had always been a man of the political establishment for whom democracy is a small discomfort that needs to be bypassed or remodeled to never jeopardize high-class desires and designs.

Like his father, President Bush studied at Yale and, after serving in World War II, he migrated to Texas where he built a fortune for his own right. It was in Texas, too, that he entered politics by pursuing the career of an insider, a man of the Republican establishment, or, as this kind of politician will become known years later, a country-club Republican.

In the political contest in the much-democrat state of Texas, President Bush provided countless evidence of being above all a man of the system. He represented Houston in the House of Representatives, was President Ford’s special envoy to China, commanded the GOP National Committee, and was United States ambassador to the UN and director of the CIA. When, at Nixon’s request, he ran for the Senate against moderate-to-conservative Democrat Lloyd Bentsen in 1970, he contested the election with a shamelessly liberal platform.

In the Republican primaries of 1980, President Bush once again played the role of party machine man and was the spearhead of the Republican elite’s effort to bar Ronald Reagan’s nomination. His whole campaign was based on the argument that Reagan was too conservative, too vulgar, too much the common Joe to represent the GOP and defeat then-President Jimmy Carter. As we all know he was wrong. Not only did Reagan win twice in a resounding fashion he engineered one of the greatest political realignments in American history: the blue collar workers, the class scorned by Prescott Bush and other country-club Republicans, began to abandon the old Democratic Party to support Reagan in his triumphant victory.

The third thing to understand about President Bush is that he was never a conservative and never showed himself as one until it paid electoral dividends. He was not sympathetic to the old-guard conservatives, whose ideas were roughly speaking dismantling the federal administration and undoing the economic and social reforms that created the deep state and crony capitalism. He likewise did not like libertarians, who were considered very radical for country club GOP standards because they wanted solid money and a government that respected the individual liberties guaranteed by the constitution.

President Bush was a friend of the nanny state. As someone who made his career occupying positions of power and influence in the federal administration, it is difficult to imagine him otherwise. The Bush presidential candidate who needed the votes of the conservative populist coalition created by Reagan, the Bush “read my lips: no new taxes” quickly gave way to a Bush who preached the increase of the welfare state and, surprisingly, created new taxes.

However, the most disastrous thing about the Bush administration was its commitment to the political agenda of neoconservatives in international relations. President Bush, and Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama after him, believed that taxpayers’ money and the lives of American soldiers should be spent and sacrificed in favor of the spread of liberal democracy throughout the world. Therefore, this produced an increased of the Military–industrial complex’s power and brought chaos to all four corners of the world.

It is a truism in the classes of Foreign Policy Analysis to conclude that President Bush and his allies were extremely careless in conducting the events that led to the Desert Storm operation. First of all, because he never made it clear to Saddam Hussein that the United States was willing to go to war over Kuwait and, secondly because all diplomatic alternatives were immediately discarded in favor of the war. It’s even funny to see how Saddam Hussein, a U.S. ally in the fight against Iran, was cast as an Islamic Adolf Hitler in such a short space of time.

Understanding these three faces of late President Bush – the elitist, the establishment man, and the non-conservative – is the best way to understand the modern United States and the post-Cold War world he helped to create. As we look toward Washington, we see a bureaucracy stripped of any democratic control and power-driven, growing every day with the support of Democrats and establishment Republicans. While in the world we can see a war promoted by the liberal international order against nation-states and national identities in favor of a global society. President Bush was a champion of both causes: the Leviathan state and the elitist liberal internationalism.

To a large extent, the worldwide populism and, in the United States, President Donald Trump, are responses to this world created by people like the now-deceased Bush. The systematic rejection that GOP voters have shown each electoral cycle toward Bush-style Republicans should be a signal to the liberal establishment that the time for change has arrived.

I believe that President Bush was a good man, a good husband, and a good father. He was a true patriot and someone who thought he was doing his best for his compatriots. In short, he was a person who can be a role model. Nevertheless, this should not serve as an excuse to overlook the flaws of his ideas and his presidency. There is much to learn from his mistakes.  If the Republican Party wants to survive as a conservative party, it must leave Bush like ideas in the same place where the former president has now rested. May George Herbert Walker Bush, his class and his ideas rest in peace.

Homepage photo credit: Gerald FordRichard NixonGeorge Herbert Walker BushRonald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter at the dedication of the Reagan Presidential Library (Left to right).  Wiki Commons.

Silvio Simonetti

Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.