The Last President of the Old Ruling Class

AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File

President George H.W. Bush talks to reporters in the Rose Garden of the White House after meeting with top military advisors to discuss the Persian Gulf War. From left are Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Vice President Dan Quayle, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, the president, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin Powell. 

One of the more annoying aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency is that he makes every previous occupant of the White House seem reasonable by comparison. Most of the obituaries about and tributes to George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday at 94, focused on the former president’s basic decency. As many journalists and historians have described him, Bush was a courteous and well-mannered individual. Their focus on Bush’s patrician reserve and quiet self-assurance is understandable in comparison to Trump’s thin-skinned temperament, arrogance, and megalomania. 

Yet lost in those remembrances is a distinction between Bush the private man and Bush the politician. Looking more closely,  the claim that Bush’s decency characterized his presidency falls apart. On that score, perhaps only the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights bill which Bush signed into law in 1990, qualifies for the decency Hall of Fame. In deeper ways, however, Bush helped lay the groundwork for what we know call “Trumpism.” 

To be sure, Bush was well known for writing thank-you notes to people—from the powerful to the everyday citizen—to congratulate them for accomplishments and thank them for kindnesses. He left a note for his successor, Bill Clinton, to read on his first day in the White House. “You willbe our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well, Bush wrote. “Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you." It is impossible to imagine Trump showing that kind of encouragement to someone who defeated him. Rather, Trump is best known for his daily twitter tantrums and crude public outbursts, typically filled with insults in response to some perceived slight. 

Despite his many accomplishments, Bush was reluctant to write about himself, a trait ingrained in him by his blue-blood upbringing that emphasized modesty and self-restraint.  He waited almost a decade after he left the White House before writing his only two books—a collection of his letters and notes, and a memoir of his presidency. Trump assiduously pursued wealth and celebrity, paying others to ghostwrite a dozen self-flattering books—starting with The Art of the Deal when he was 41 years old—designed to enhance his personal brand and keep his name in the public eye.

Bush was part of the wealthy New England Republican country club set who took their privilege for granted. The Bush family could claim a pedigree, while Trump had to invent a family coat of arms, on ostentatious display at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. The Bush clan was not only part of the business class, they were also part of an aristocratic social upper class that would never let someone as crude and over-eager as Trump join their ranks.

But despite his blue-blood ancestry, Bush was actually a transitional figure in American history who helped build bridges between the so-called Eastern ruling class Republican establishment and the newer, libertarian wing of the party based in the Sunbelt, particularly Texas, Arizona, Florida, and Southern California (particularly Orange County, which until recently was solid right-wing Republican). 

Bush personified the WASP establishment into which he was born in 1924. Hispaternal great-grandfather, Reverend James Smith Bush, had attended Yale, class of 1844. His father, Prescott Bush, was a Wall Street banker who, reflecting the noblesse oblige attitude of the New England upper class, was a leader of Planned Parenthood and an early supporter of the United Negro College Fund. Prescott was elected twice as a Republican Senator from Connecticut, serving from 1952 to 1963. He sent his son George to elite private schools (Greenwich Country Day School and Phillips Academy), where he was groomed for leadership, serving as president of the senior class, president of the community service organization, a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, and captain of the baseball team. 

Bush enlisted in the Navy at 18 and served bravely as an aviator in World War II. (In contrast, Trump used his family connections to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, using the bogus excuse of bone spurs in his feet).

Following the war, Bush followed the path expected of him by his class and family background. Like his father, he graduated from Yale, where he continued to display the leadership qualities expected by his family breeding. He captained the baseball team and joined the elite Skull and Bones secret society, where his father (and later his son George W.) was also a member. 

The Bushes were not only born to privilege, they viewed it as their inherited right and responsibility to rule the nation’s economic and political system. (It was about Bush that Jim Hightower said, at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta, “he was born on third base, but he thought he hit a triple.”). Ambitious and competitive, George postponed public service until he had made his mark in business. But rather than follow his father into the world of Wall Street, he moved his young family to Texas in 1948. Although he set out to make his fortune, he was hardly the self-reliant entrepreneur. He went to work for a company owned by his father’s friend and financed by his father’s employer, the investment firm Brown Brothers.

But Bush’s somewhat unconventional decision to move to Texas makes him something of pioneer figure in modern American history. In the immediate postwar period, the Republican Party was dominated by the Eastern establishment, some of whom were descendants of the original colonists while others came from families who made their wealth during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s and early 1900s, primarily through banking and manufacturing. Exemplified by New York governors Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller, General Motors CEO Charles Wilson, Wall Street lawyer John Foster Dulles, and senators likeHenry Cabot Lodge Jr. of Massachusetts, they shared a common internationalist outlook about America’s role in the world and the Cold War, and a common belief in the primacy of having businesspersons run the government. But they differed somewhat on issues like civil rights and gun control. 

By the late 1950s, however, Americans began moving in large numbers to the Sunbelt, fostered by commercial spread of air conditioning and by the new federal interstate highway system. Ambitious entrepreneurs built new fortunes in real estate, aerospace, oil, banking, and retail stores. These businessmen helped strengthen the Republican Party in these areas, but they both envied and disdained the party’s Eastern Establishment wing. They viewed themselves as self-reliant, hard charging, and libertarian, symbolized by the faux-cowboy song, “Don’t Fence Me In.” They supported gun rights, joined conservative churches, and opposed government intervention in business affairs (except federal funding of the military-industrial complex), and opposed civil rights and abortion. They reluctantly supported Richard Nixon’s 1960 campaign for president but wholeheartedly embraced Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s run for that office in 1964 and Ronald Reagan’s political career as California governor and presidential candidate. 

As both a scion of New England wealth and an oil entrepreneur in Texas, Bush had his feet in both wings of the Republican Party. He made friends with the new wave of Sunbelt Republicans like James Baker and the businessmen who embraced Goldwater and Reagan, but he never turned his back on his patrician roots, including the family’s vacation compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. As a result, both wings of the party were suspicious of him. Much of his hypocrisy as a politician—on abortion, civil rights, and gun rights—is a result of this tightrope-walking. 

In 1964, having become a millionaire by age 40, Bush decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by entering politics. Rather than work his way up from the local school board, city council, or state legislature, Bush figured he’d head right for the U.S. Senate from Texas. To curry support with Texas voters, he opposed the 1964 Civil Right Act, which banned racial discrimination in jobs, schools, and public accommodations.But even his family’s wealth and his father’s Republican connections couldn’t help the Connecticut Yankee win that year.   

Two years later, lowering his sights, he won election to an open seat for the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’ Seventh District and won re-election in 1968. The affluent Republican-leaning district had been created by gerrymandering. In 1970, he failed for a second time to win a U.S. Senate seat from the Lone Star state. Instead, for the next decade, he drew on his family ties and money to pad his resume.  In 1971, President Richard Nixon appointed him as America’s UN ambassador. In 1973, he became chairman of the Republican National Committee. The next year, President Gerald Ford named him as ambassador to China and then as director of the CIA.

By 1980, he was ready to resume his destiny and ran for president. During the Republican primaries, as The Washington Post explained, he “positioned himself as a moderate, pragmatic alternative to [Ronald] Reagan, and he derided as ‘voodoo economics’ the former California governor’s vow to simultaneously cut taxes, boost defense spending and balance the budget.”  

The party’s Goldwater and Reagan wing distrusted Bush, but Reagan realized that Bush’s pedigree and ties to money would be useful in winning over some independent voters and he chose him as his running mate. Bush served as vice president for eight year performing mostly ceremonial tasks, while he waited for another chance to run for the top job.          

Bush may not have been a diehard Reaganite but he learned how to play one on TV. Both Nixon and Reagan had perfected the art of the racist dog whistle, appealing to white voters by playing on their fears about riots, drugs, crime, and welfare. When he ran for president in 1988 against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, Bush turned the dog whistle into a bullhorn. With the help of his campaign strategist Lee Atwater, Bush’s supporters ran what might be the most overtly racist ad in modern U.S. political history—at least until Trump’s 2016 campaign. To be clear, Bush knew about the racist “Willie Horton” ad—designed to stoke racial fears and stereotypes—and allowed it to be broadcast.  

Bush also denounced Dukakis’s membership in the ACLU and his support for a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling prohibiting public schools from requiring students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. To make his point, while visiting a factory that made American flags, Bush asked, “What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?”

In playing the race and patriotism cards, Bush was able to divert attention from his upper class privilege.  

And, helped by Dukakis’s inept campaign, he defeated his Democratic opponent by a 53.4 percent to 45.6 percent margin, winning 40 states and 426 Electoral votes to Dukakis’ 111. 

As president, Bush sought to put a happy face on Reagan’s right-wing agenda. He continued to slash anti-poverty programs. Befitting his patrician background, he preferred private charity to government social welfare. He said he wanted America to become a “kinder, gentler nation,” and praised nonprofit and religious organizations as the nation’s “thousand points of light,” even while those groups complained that they lacked the resources to deal with the country’s growing number of destitute families. 

His hypocrisy knew no limits. Having once correctly attacked Reagan’s supply-side economics ideas a “voodoo economics,” he embraced the idea fully when running for president. As a candidate in 1988, he pledged not to raise taxes, but he inherited a huge deficit from Reagan. The Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress, outmaneuvered him and he reluctantly signed a bill that increased the marginal tax rate and phased out exemptions for high-income taxpayers. Having once been a big supporter of Planned Parenthood, he claimed to have changed his views and joined the Republican chorus against abortion. His nomination of the far-right Clarence Thomas to replace civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court was an act of vile cynicism and tokenism.

For someone who had served as an ambassador and CIA director, Bush fumbled many of his foreign policy initiatives. First he winked at Saddam Hussein, letting him know that the U.S. would look the other way if he invaded Kuwait. Then he changed his mind and initiated the U.S. invasion of Iraq known as the Persian Gulf War. But then he failed to follow through, leaving Hussein in power. His son George W. believed that it was his father’s biggest mistake and he vowed, should he become president, to finish the job. The destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 gave W. the excuse he needed to avenge his father, initiating America’s longest-lasting combat operation, although it was left to Barack Obama to capture the real mastermind of 9/11. 

Just as he’d challenged Dukakis’s patriotism in 1988, he did the same to Bill Clinton four years later. Clinton had protested against the Vietnam War and visited Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia while a Rhodes Scholar in England in 1969. Clinton “should level with the American people on the draft, on whether he went to Moscow, how many demonstrations he led against his own country from foreign soil,” Bush said in a televised interview with Larry King.  

Few people gave Clinton a chance to beat Bush, who in 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, had among the highest approval ratings of any recent president. But by focusing almost entirely on foreign policy, Bush took little interest in managing the economy. By the time he was preparing for re-election, the unemployment rate jumped to more than 7 percent. “Bush doesn’t seem to understand that the biggest threat to America’s working families is not the Red menace but the pink slip,” said Boston’s then-mayor, Ray Flynn. 

Bush’s apparent indifference to the concerns of everyday Americans was on full display in February 1992, during his re-election campaign, when he visited the National Grocers Association convention in Orlando and appeared to be unfamiliar with checkout scanners, which had been in general use in supermarkets for more than a decade. “This is for checking out?” Bush asked, confirming many Americans’ view that the president was out of touch. 

Clinton defeated Bushby 370 to 168 Electoral votes, ending 12 years of Republican rule in the White House.

But before he left the presidency, Bush scored one more victory for right-wing Republicanism. In December 1992, Bush granted full pardons to six former Reagan administration officials, including former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, National Security Advisor Robert MacFarlane and presidential assistant Elliot Abrams,all of whom had been indicted and/or convicted of criminal charges by Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor, for their part in the arms-for-hostages deal that was the Reagan administration’s most notorious scandal. They had helped arrange U.S. arms sales to Iran in order to fund “contra” rebels in Nicaragua seeking to overthrow the democratically elected left-wing government. Weinberger was scheduled to stand trial on January 5, 1993, on charges that he lied to Congress about his knowledge of the deal, 

Bush’s pardons were hardly matters of compassion or conscience. They were completely self-serving. As vice president, Bush had participated in meetings where top officials discussed the arms-for-hostages deal, but he lied about his role, insisting that he had been “out of the loop.” Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor investigating the scandal, knew that Bush was involved. He was preparing to draw attention to Weinberger’s private notes, which mentioned Bush’s complicity. He also learned about Bush’s own private diary and expected to get a copy to seek evidence of his connection to the scandal. Bush’s pardon not only wiped out Weinberger’s conviction, three guilty pleas, and two other cases, but protected him from further investigation. Walsh described Bush’s actions as “misconduct” and part of “the Iran-contra cover-up.” We can see the parallels today with Trump’s efforts to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his business affairs and collusion with Russia.

Most stories about Bush’s post-presidency focus on how he helped galvanize support for hurricane victims or displayed remarkable daring by celebrating his 80th, 85th, and 90th birthdays by skydiving. Less mentioned is how he used his business connections—especially to Arab oil interests—to enrich himself. As a Texas oil company executive, Bush built Kuwait’s first offshore oil well with the approval of the ruling al-Sabah family. Then, in a clear conflict of interest not unlike Trump’s business ties to Russian oligarchs, the Bush administration restored the family to power after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. After he left the presidency, Bush maintained his connection to the Saudi royal family. In 2000, he visited Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at his opulent desert compound as a representative of the Carlyle Group, a high-powered private equity firm with extensive Middle East holdings and filled with former Reagan and Bush administration officials. Bush also met with the Saudi family of Osama bin Laden, which had investments in the Carlyle Group. After Bush’s meetings with the South Korean business and government officials, including the prime minister, Carlyle gained control of KorAm, a major Korean bank. Bush sat on Carlyle’s board and was handsomely compensated for these efforts.

Of course, Bush’s most important legacy is the two-term presidency of his son George W. The younger Bush also, went to prep schools and Yale, but he was more comfortable than his father with Texas-style Sunbelt conservativism. He had no qualms pandering to and becoming part of the reactionary Republican movement with its base in the Religious Right and the National Rifle Association. Yet even in anointing his sons, the elder Bush miscalculated. He believed that W. was too irresponsible and reckless to serve in public office. In 1994, he tried to dissuade W. from running for Texas governor (a race he won) so that the family could focus its energies and political ties on helping Jeb, W.’s younger brother, run for governor of Florida (which he lost). George believed that Jeb was the son who was destined to occupy the White House. But in 2000, when W.’s election depended on the vote recount in Florida, the whole family pulled together. George sent James Baker—his best friend, former chief-of-staff and secretary of state, and corporate lawyer—to orchestrate the battle plan to make sure Florida’s political establishment (which by then included Jeb, who was finally elected governor in 1998) and the courts handed W. the presidency. 

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