George H.W. Bush Dies at 94

George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away late Friday. He was 94.

Bush, the scion of a wealthy New England family, served as a Navy torpedo bomber pilot in World War II before returning to New England and matriculating at Yale. His inherited wealth and his family’s business connections helped him enter the Texas oil industry. He took his family’s Republicanism with him and, after his inevitable business success, entered politics as the GOP’s Harris County (Houston) Republican Party chairman.

Texas in the 50s and 60s was a Democratic stronghold at a time when the Democratic Party was a mix of Dixiecrat conservatives and liberal populists like Senator Ralph Yarborough, whom Bush ran against in 1964, his first political campaign. Bush, sensing resentment among white Texans toward President Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights efforts, ran a Dixiecrat-esque campaign, calling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a “militant.” This made the race closer than Yarborough expected, but Texans were not yet ready to vote for a Republican–and a New Englander to boot.

Thinking–incorrectly, it would turn out–that the kind of social conservatism he was peddling wouldn’t play in Texas, he ran for Congress in 1966 embracing LBJ’s “Great Society,” which won him a seat representing part of Harris County. But history was moving quickly between 1964 and 1970. Nixon, seeing what Bush failed to notice and act upon, successfully deployed his Southern Strategy, and the GOP and Democratic coalitions shifted into today’s patterns. In 1969 and 1970, Bush, who would later lament lacking “the vision thing,” prepared again to run against Yarborough, this time not so far to his right. But Texans no longer looked upon Yarborough’s Democratic liberalism much too kindly. Yarborough lost the primary race to Lloyd Bentsen, who saw what Nixon did and ran as a hard-edge social conservative, criticizing Yarborough for his opposition to the Vietnam War and associating him with hippies and protesters. Bush haplessly tried running to Bentsen’s left, but Bentsen had seized the victorious ground.

His political career run aground, Bush, not for the first time, benefited from others’ patronage, specifically others who saw in Bush a reliable and mostly competent team player. Nixon picked Bush as ambassador to the United Nations, then as head of the Republican National Committee. When Watergate broke, Nixon ordered Bush to defend him, which he did faithfully. Gerald Ford, impressed, sent Bush to China as an envoy before making him CIA director.

In 1980, ten years after his last unsuccessful bid for public office, Bush ran for president and was, yet again, outmaneuvered by someone to his right. Bush and Reagan personally disliked each other. Bush accurately described Reagan’s idea of cutting taxes, raising defense spending, and balancing the budget as “voodoo economics.” After he lost the primary and reporters hounded Bush about whether he would serve as vice president, Bush referenced William Tecumseh Sherman’s quote, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” He told reporters, “Take Sherman and cube it.”

Reagan badly wanted Gerald Ford to be his vice president, but Ford refused Reagan’s repeated appeals during the Republican National Convention. Jules Witcover recalled in Politico what happened after Ford issued his final no and left Reagan’s convention suite.

Reagan wiped his brow, turned to an aide and, according to his friend Jim Baker, said, simply, “Now where the hell’s Bush?” As it happened, Bush was rather disconsolately watching television in his hotel suite, watching the Ford rumors mount. Bush’s phone rang, and Baker took the call, the voice asking for “Ambassador Bush.” Baker asked, “Who’s calling?” and was told: “Governor Reagan.” He handed over the phone. “The feeling on the part of most people in the room,” Baker later told me, “was that he was calling to tell George he had done the deal with Ford. George got on, and said: ‘Hello. Yes sir, how are you? Yes, sir.’ There was a long pause, and then Bush turned, grinning, and said: ‘Why, yes sir. I think you can say I support the platform, wholeheartedly!’” So much for “voodoo economics” and “Take Sherman and cube it.”

Bush as vice president appeared to scrupulously avoid asking too many probing questions, particularly surrounding the Iran-Contra scandal. This set him up nicely to run for president in 1988; after 24 years of failure and even more patronage, George Herbert Walker Bush finally won an election.

In his four years as president, Bush still lacked “the vision thing” and, for the most part, played the role of first-responder to major historical changes, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany.

Ironically, he would lose office for being honest, or more accurately, for not continuing a dishonest policy. In the 1988 Republican convention, Bush was determined not to be be flanked from the right for the third time in his life, so he told his party: “My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again. And I’ll say to them: Read my lips. No new taxes.”

By 1990, Bush saw what Republicans, and perhaps the nation at large, refused to see: Reagan’s economics really were something akin to voodoo and were hurting the country’s economy. He compromised with Democrats and signed a budget deal that raised taxes. Bush, the consummate team player, finally broke ranks and was promptly ejected from office for it.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.