George Bush had an unusual path to the White House, though not as unusual as that of Chester Arthur or Gerald Ford. No, Bush had only held one elected office, as a congressman from Houston, Texas. From there, he became Ambassador to the UN, Republican National Chairman, head of the US Liaison Office in China, and director of the CIA. The presidents who have taken office since World War II have been senators (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Obama, with Ford coming from the House), governors (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and GW Bush), and four vice presidents (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, GHW Bush), two of whom were senators before stepping one heartbeat away from the presidency.
It may surprise many to know that Bush was actually considered for the vice presidency, a job he held under Ronald Reagan, as early as 1972, when Nixon considered getting rid of Spiro Agnew, and again when Agnew resigned. Ford twice considered him (complaining later in Write It When I’m Gone that Congressional leaders twisted his arm to make Bush head of the CIA essentially to keep him off the 1976 ticket.)
Bush ran in the second election in which I was eligible to vote. I immediately liked him because, unlike so many who run for president, he struck me as a manager. He was definitely a politician. He had to be to hold the jobs he held before joining the Reagan Administration. But spending most of his career in business and in appointed jobs showed in his demeanor and his approach to domestic and foreign affairs. He would manage the country, whereas Reagan, though active and involved, also served as a larger-than-life figurehead.
What I also remember is that Bush was better suited for foreign policy – which he excelled at – than domestic. It may have been that he simply approached domestic matters with a more low-key approach than Reagan did. Bush is a Republican in the mold of Bob Dole (who probably should have been Nixon’s second vice president, though Ford did well enough.) He leaned conservative, but was more center right than he cares to admit even now.
Reading his book of letters, All the Best, George Bush, I got a sense of a man who did business in a way that Washington sorely needs to return to these days. Bush valued friendship and even sought advice from political rivals during his political career. One letter playfully needles his former opposite number on the Democratic National Committee after Bush’s posting to China.
I often say Bush came in the finish Reagan’s paperwork. Considering that he was president at the end of the Cold War, that’s a somewhat accurate assessment, but hardly a dismissal. After Reagan was shot in 1981, he became an essential part of the administration, a sort of unofficial diplomat. (“You die, I fly,” he once joked after some ribbing in the press about his frequent trips to attend funerals, where, he points out in his book, a lot of diplomacy would get done.)
But, as with Reagan, Bush saw the rough-and-tumble of politics as a sort of Sam Sheepdog/Ralph Wolf routine. Legislators, candidates, and officials would snipe in the press, then roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get work done.
There’s something missing in the way DC governs now. Clinton, who learned a lot from his predecessor, may have been the last to govern the way Bush did, but it’s something more. Bush was the last World War II vet to sit in the Oval Office. While the living presidents tend to be friendly, if not close (George W. Bush is surprisingly the most sympathetic man to Barack Obama’s woes, which should really make some of Obama’s – and Bush’s – detractors ashamed of themselves), it seems as though real civility in the White House and on Capitol Hill began dying off as the Vietnam Era generation began to retire from politics. Today’s method seems to be hold one’s breath, stamp one’s feet, and make sure nothing positive is ever said about one’s opponent.
I admire Clinton, but I suspect something very deep and very important began disappearing the day George H. W. Bush went home to Houston. Johnson, for all his crassness, showed it. Ford was the embodiment of it. Carter and Reagan did it without thinking. Bush was the last of a generation that survived a Depression and fought a war to save civilization. Today it’s all demagogues, posers, and people who are incapable of compromise, nuance, or even substance.
It died when our best one-term president in modern history left office.