Editor’s Note: The following historical and political perspective on the presidency of George H.W. Bush — who died Nov. 30, 2018, and whose state funeral was today, Dec. 5, 2018 — is offered by Erika Cornelius Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science and international business, and chair of the political science program at Nichols College. She served as a White House intern for his son, President George W. Bush, in 2004 when she was an undergraduate college student.
By ERIKA CORNELIUS SMITH, Ph.D.
During his final days in office, President George Herbert Walker Bush encountered Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the former Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who advised him, “You ran the worst campaign I ever saw, but you’re going out a beloved figure; everybody will tell you that.”
Historians will write about President George H.W. Bush as a “careful and pragmatic” manager of the end of the Cold War. He will be remembered for his work in private business and long career in public service as someone who had the courage to make difficult decisions and trust his instincts; this is evidenced by the 44 vetoes he issued on bills presented by Congress, more than any of the two-term presidents who followed him (Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama). We will evaluate his domestic and foreign policy and presidential leadership, and weigh his successes and failures against other one-term presidents.
President Bush experienced a landslide victory in 1988 and very high approval ratings in 1991, only to face a crushing defeat the following year. Some political scientists speculate that it was a matter of policy and the economy — by accepting a tax increase as part of a 1990 budget deal he may have alienated the right-wing of the Republican Party; the economy sputtered at the end of the Cold War, providing few dividends to younger voters; and a third-party challenge from candidate Ross Perot reflected renewed populist, nationalist concerns. In the end, neither major party candidate came close to winning a majority of votes. But Bill Clinton’s 43-percent plurality produced the biggest Electoral College total for a Democrat in decades.
With this in mind, perhaps it is also worth considering the presidency of George H.W. Bush in alternative terms: as a third-term Republican presidency following the Ronald Reagan administration. The Republicans have fared better than their opponents when it comes to extending control over the presidency after the same president (or his legal successor) won two straight elections. Among the Grand Old Party (GOP) candidates who were able to win that vital third election in a row for their party were Ulysses S. Grant (1868), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Theodore Roosevelt (1904), and George H.W. Bush (1988). While long runs of single-party dominance were once the norm in American politics, the ratification of the 22ndAmendment in 1951 all but guaranteed second-term lame ducks and significantly changed the dynamics of reelection. In the time since its passage, President George H.W. Bush is the only U.S. president to continue party control of the Oval Office.
During his short time as president, George H.W. Bush leveraged enhanced U.S. influence in foreign policy to lead a global coalition to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and negotiate the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that came to be known as NAFTA. In terms of domestic policy, he oversaw the passage of significant domestic legislation, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Immigration Act of 1990, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 that provided funding and public access to a developing internet. He was the last of the World War II generation to serve in the Oval Office, which endowed him with a sense of duty and common purpose that John F. Kennedy once expressed with his call to “pay any price, bear any burden.”
In his own words, President Bush reminded us, “No problem of human making is too great to be overcome by human ingenuity, human energy, and the untiring hope of the human spirit.”