A Visit with George Bush

When asked "Can George Bush think?" his current and former associates all, in effect, say no  

I'd like us still to be the undisputed leader of the world," George Bush told me when I had occasion to ask him recently where he wanted the country to be after a second Bush Administration. Bush credited Ronald Reagan with establishing a "very solid foundation, strong defense—keep our sights set on the demise of the Soviet Union." But he credited himself with confirming America's world leadership through decisive action. "Both Panama and the liberation of Kuwait helped, because I think there was a perception," a "kind of an aftermath of Vietnam, that the U.S. wouldn't fight, wouldn't go all out." We were speaking in the Oval Office last spring. Bush focused on the Gulf War. "I think Saddam Hussein had that perception. One, I think he thought we wouldn't go to battle and really go all out to do him in. Secondly; he thought that if we did, he might have a way of winning, at least winning like Nasser did," by "emerging as the hero of the Arab world." Bush said, "He was wrong on both counts." Then he gave a typically low-key Bush wrap-up. "Under my presidency I think most would concede that good things have happened."

Wanting to probe one of the good things that had happened, I took up not Desert Storm, which may still be unfinished business, but the collapse of Soviet communism, and asked if the President thought in retrospect that he had been too uncritical of Gorbachev.

He denied it. "I know there's some current kind of conventional wisdom that we stayed with Gorbachev too long. I would say the transition has been peaceful—not without some bumps in the road, but the transition has been peaceful. And the coup failed. And I think that we handled it about right."

So, I continued, it had been correct to say, as late as three weeks before the coup, that glasnost and perestroika pointed toward "democracy and economic liberty," which is what Bush had said in his speech in Kiev.

"Look at the alternative," Bush said now. "Look at the people who were trying to overthrow" Gorbachev. People, I pointed out, that Gorbachev himself had appointed. "He didn't appoint them to be coup plotters," Bush said, not to be budged from his basic judgment: the transition was peaceful, the coup failed, therefore what we did must have been right. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

When Bush talks about foreign policy, he has his examples at hand, and he can present them in a nutshell or tease out their details, as he likes. When surveying domestic issues, Bush tends to cruise at low altitude over a blur of programs, without elaboration, sometimes giving them only numbers, like Chinese slogans, rather than names: "the five objectives we have in terms of reforms . . . our six educational goals. . ." During my interview he alighted on only three issues. In four years he expected to be "well on the way to accomplishing victory" in the war on drugs. He mentioned "encouraging statistics" on the number of teenage users of cocaine, though the number of addicts has "not improved at all," he admitted. "So we've still got a big job." His second issue was the Administration's efforts to contain the litigation explosion—"not a frivolous subject, because when you look at health-care costs," litigation "costs us from twenty billion to forty billion a year." His goal was to "put some caps on these liabilities." Last was regulation, a problem he had partly caused. "We've had two major pieces of legislation that flooded the system with some regulation—the ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] and the Clean Air Act"—both of which he had supported. "But we're trying very hard to see that we get that under control." In fairness, I should say that we spoke just before the Los Angeles riots. Since then Bush has discovered Jack Kemp's "urban agenda."

When I asked him about multicultural education, an issue not yet attached to any federal programs or national political controversy, he responded with a platitude—"I'd like to see us brought together and not divided"—and then, as he often does, he cited experience. "We have three multicultural grandkids"—the children of Jeb and Columba Bush. "Their mother is Mexican and now an American citizen, proudly. They feel, because of her, affinity for the Mexican culture . . . and it's a wonderful thing. But it is not put forward in their house in some guilt way . . . meaning, the world owes us something because we have a different culture."

Bush also turned to family experience when I questioned him about his position on abortion. His steadfastness on the abortion issue is surprising. Hard-core right-to-life beliefs are not common among those of his station in life. "Friends and others violently disagree with me. . . . I hear from more of my friends who disagree. Whether that means that those who agree just are not apt to be checking in, I don't know." Bush had more-liberal views in the 1980 campaign, when he supported federal funding to abort pregnancies that were caused by rape or incest or that endangered the mother's life. But he has held so tenaciously to his new position that the National Right to Life Committee endorsed him in 1988, and is one of the few conservative groups that preferred him to Patrick Buchanan. Bush cited the number of abortions as one of the reasons for his stand; he did not know the figure—1.5 million a year—but called it "extraordinarily high." The other reason was "quite personal": "our adopted grandchildren who give us so much joy." These are the children of Marvin and Margaret Bush. Had their birth mothers exercised the right to choose differently, Bush reasons, they would not be alive.

Bush showed no such steadfastness on taxes. The 1990 budget agreement is the act he most regrets, "because it's cost me a lot of credibility." Indeed it has. The former White House speech writer Peggy Noonan, who wrote the 1988 convention acceptance speech in which Bush pledged "no new taxes," explained in her 1990 memoir why she had preceded that promise with the even more memorable phrase "Read my lips": "It's definite. It's not subject to misinterpretation. It means, I mean this." Noonan may have meant it. But two years later, when Bush turned out to have meant something else, he suffered the first significant sag in his approval ratings and the first signs of rebellion on the right. Reagan, Bush wanted me to know, had raised taxes several times, and yet the opprobrium of pledge-breaking "didn't seem to stick" to him. Bush thought that had been partly because the recovery from Reagan's recession in 1982 was vigorous. "With us, we've had this long, slow, recessionary economy. . . . It's been tough. Tough period."

But was the economy the only reason people had become discontented with him, or discontented in general? Toward the end of the interview I asked him if he thought Americans were suffering from a lost sense of commonality, a feeling that we are not in fact all in the same boat. This diagnosis is usually offered by liberals who are bemoaning the class inequities of the Reagan-Bush years, but conservatives make a similar analysis when they criticize cultural secessionism such as multiculturalism.

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