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Flashbacks: "Like Father, Unlike Son" (March 26, 2003)
Articles from the 1980s and 1990s offer a look back at George Bush the
elder, who was a dramatically different leader from his strong-willed son.
The Atlantic Monthly | October 1992
y metaphor for this administration," Norman Podhoretz, the editor in chief of Commentary, told me over lunch, "is coitus interruptus. George Bush can't consummate anything. Since coitus interruptus is well known to breed anxiety, the country is suffering from an anxiety attack."
Gravedigger of the Revolution
Whether George Bush wins the election or not, he has already lost the affections of the conservative movement, for forgetting what Ronald Reagan, no deep thinker, never forgot—that ideas matter in politics
by Richard Brookhiser
A generation or two hence historians may have to make an effort of the imagination to understand why a prominent right-of-center spokesman would be speaking in this disparaging way of the Bush Administration as it finished its fourth year. By several indicators its record was no worse than mixed, particularly from a conservative point of view. The country had undergone a long recession that had not, however, been as deep as the downturn of 1982. Bush had won two wars—three, counting the Cold War. Domestically, his enemies—who were also the conservative movement's enemies—were in disarray. Liberalism had been searching for new ideas for more than a decade, while the Democratic Party was identified with a branch of government wracked by scandals, from kited checks to the resignations of the speaker of the House and the House majority whip.
Yet when Podhoretz and I spoke, conservatives shared the general disappointment with George Bush. If anything, they felt it more acutely than other Americans, because it was compounded by a sense of betrayal. In January, Edwin J. Feulner Jr., the president of the Heritage Foundation, the premier conservative Beltway think tank, had declared that "our message" was in danger of being "sullied by a visionless White House pretending to be conservative." He wrote, "Conservatives supported George Bush and they got Michael Dukakis." Jack Kemp, Bush's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, although supporting the President's re-election, publicly criticized some of the economic proposals in his State of the Union address as "gimmicks." Those were sound bites. At the polls Patrick Buchanan, the conservative pundit and former White House speech writer, who had never even run for sheriff, still managed to pull a third of the vote in the early Republican primaries, which included contests in states he never stumped. After Buchanan faded, some disaffected conservatives—Ed Rollins, who had been Ronald Reagan's campaign manager in 1984; the supply-side advocate Jude Wanniski—enlisted in the short-lived telecoup campaign of Ross Perot.
Whether conservatism and its discontents matter to the rest of the country depends in part on whether the conservative message, which Feulner accused Bush of sullying, is correct—is what the country needs. As someone who didn't vote for Goldwater in 1964 only because I was nine years old at the time, I assume that it is. But the conservative funk should matter to nonconservatives—at least to those who believe that ideas have a role in politics.
That belief is scarcely universal. If voters are won over and elections won solely by the manipulation of imagery, then ideology is at best a tool of cynics, at worst a distraction for manipulators and analysts alike. If Americans vote only the fatness or slimness of their wallets (as the former Ohio governor James Rhodes used to say, elections are decided by "who can put money in people's pockets—you or the other guy," a line often quoted by George Bush), then many of the concerns of an ideological movement will be irrelevant. But if ideas are important in politics, then the conservative diagnosis of the Bush Administration is of general interest, because for more than a dozen years conservatives have been the idea men of the Republican Party. They have been its grass-roots activists as well—a fact directly related to the seriousness with which they take their convictions, because ideas move people to organize and to campaign as well as to vote.
Lunch With Reagan
hen the conservative movement first encountered George Bush, in the 1980 presidential election, it had been developing for more than twenty-five years. Its view of its own history was of a long trek from the wilderness to the threshold of power. Conservative intellectuals had taken the first steps in the process in the late fifties, elaborating a domestic and foreign-policy agenda to replace older right-wing issues—McCarthyism, isolationism—that had collapsed or faded. Once the new agenda was in place, conservatism began its march through the institutions—winning the Republican presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and then supporting Ronald Reagan through three tries. Along the way the marchers picked up allies—the neoconservatives, or Jewish ex-liberals; the religious right, or evangelical ex-Democrats. Conservatives thought of themselves as a movement not only because they were organized and purposeful but also because they had been on the move: from fringes to mainstream, from exile to acceptance, from the pages of small-circulation journals of opinion to the big top of presidential politics.
George Bush hadn't moved with them. His very pedigree was wrong: his father, Prescott, who was for ten years a senator from Connecticut, had belonged to the Dewey-Eisenhower wing of the Republican Party, enemy of the right in an earlier incarnation. Bush's efforts to build up the party in his adopted state of Texas—although they certainly fit with the southern strategy, one of conservatism's operational tenets—had always been motivated by party, rather than movement, loyalty. As Reagan advanced toward the nomination grail, Bush (somewhat surprisingly) proved to be his doughtiest opponent.
Bush joined the movement ex officio when he became Reagan's running mate. He spent the next eight years laboring to earn the trust of Ronald Reagan and of the movement besides. In 1988 John Sununu, the New Hampshire governor, who would become Bush's chief of staff, gave me the conservative pro-Bush case: "George Bush has not only served this President well but has become a strong advocate for [his] agenda." Bush had only minority support within the movement during that primary season, but because the bulk of the activist right was split among Kemp, Pat Robertson, and the former Delaware governor Pete Du Pont, a minority was all he needed. Royalism and loyalism, always strong in the party, did the rest, and when conservatives faced the prospect of a Bush term, they hoped guardedly for the best from it. "I'm fairly upbeat about a Bush Administration," Jude Wanniski told me as Bush steamed to an election victory. "I think Bush really learned a lot in the last seven years from having lunched with Ronald Reagan alone." If he hadn't learned to respect the movement's principles, at least he had learned to respect what worked. Bush doesn't "care … about issues philosophically," Paul Weyrich, of the Free Congress Foundation, admitted to me in the fall of 1988. "But he's very curious [about] who's on which side, and why they're there, and how things come about. . . . Bush has a certain naiveté that is refreshing."
Read Our Lips
he movement lost its naiveté in the summer of 1990, when Bush and congressional Democrats agreed on a budget deal that set caps on spending and raised the top marginal tax rate from 28 to 31 percent. It is never necessary, though, to provide identifying details when talking about the deal to conservatives. To them, there is only one budget deal, branded in infamy. It ended the honeymoon and the marriage.
Of course, the first year and a half had not been without disappointments. The two conservative face cards in Bush's Cabinet were William Bennett and Kemp, drug czar and HUD Secretary; the first job looked like window dressing, and the second seemed to be a broom closet. Legislation designed to clean the air and help the handicapped, signed by Bush, risked hurting the economy through overregulation. But no mature pol is disappointed by mere disappointments. They are the daily bread of politics. Everyone lets you down with some regularity, even yourself—even Ronald Reagan. What the movement expected from its partnership with George Bush was as many victories as losses, plus fidelity on essentials.
The budget deal represented betrayal on an essential, because cutting tax rates had been a winning issue for twelve years, in two senses. Pledging to cut tax rates won elections: Walter Mondale, who promised at the 1984 Democratic convention to raise them, was rewarded with thirteen electoral votes. And actually cutting them fueled the nation's longest peacetime boom—ninety-two months of expansion, from November of 1982 to July of 1990. By signing a budget deal that raised tax rates, Bush went back on an issue that the movement had thought settled, politically and intellectually.
"The unraveling of the Bush Administration on economic grounds" began in 1989, according to Robert L. Bartley, the editor of The Wall Street Journal. The Tax Reform Act of 1986, the last national spasm of tax-cutting, had required a compromise: in order to rationalize the tax code into three broadly lower rates, the tax rate on capital gains had actually been raised. Most of the tax-cut specialists in the movement had accepted the increase as temporary. "I figured we could come back in a couple of years," Bartley says, "and cut the capital-gains rare on straight Laffer-curve grounds"—that is, argue that lower rates would generate greater revenue. "What in fact happened was that in 1989 [Senate Majority Leader] George Mitchell managed to wear the Bush people down." Though a capital-gains cut passed in the Democratically controlled House, Mitchell led Senate Democrats in a successful obstruction. "Once the bill had gotten through the House, it ought to have been an easier sell in the Senate." But the Administration "didn't push hard enough."
Mitchell's victory, Bartley believes, "reintroduced the fairness issue"—the practice, beloved of old-style liberals, of judging tax policies not on whether they stimulated the economy or generated revenue but on how much richer they made people who were rich already. Bush and his closest advisers were for sociological reasons particularly sensitive to attacks on their "fairness." In his recent book, The Seven Fat Years, Bartley ticked off the alma maters of key Bush men: Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady (St. Mark's, Yale), Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher (Choate, Washington and Lee), Secretary of State James Baker (the Hill School, Princeton), Bush himself (Andover, Yale). Such products of the haute WASPoisie may not believe, except in cases of extreme guilt, that traveling the well-paved paths that life laid out for them is in itself unfair. But they often believe that everyone else believes it. "People of inherited wealth," Jude Wanniski says, "think the people below them want their money. They don't understand that the people below them want their own money." In their anxiety, "men from privileged backgrounds are not likely to be comfortable arguing that 'fairness' is bunk," Bartley wrote. "For that you need someone like Ronald Reagan, the son of a shoe salesman with alcohol problems and a graduate of Eureka College." Bartley concluded wistfully, "A former professional quarterback might do"—but Kemp was in the broom closet.
There was one very close adviser in the earliest days of the Bush Administration who was not silver-spoon—Lee Atwater (A. C. Flora High School, Newberry College). Atwater, Paul Weyrich says, "had enormous credibility with Bush, because he'd won a campaign Bush in his heart hadn't thought he could win. Whenever people in the Cabinet, including the President, came up with stupid ideas," Atwater could nix them—never on philosophical grounds, because "he didn't have much philosophy himself. But he knew what worked." Atwater understood that the tax-issue position on which Bush had campaigned "was the one theme that resonated, and that the public had believed it." But in March of 1990 Atwater was diagnosed as having a brain tumor, and he died a year later. The Bush Administration WASPs were on their own in facing congressional Democrats emboldened by the resurrection of the fairness issue.
If the budget deal had represented only dubious economics and ideological betrayal, the movement would have merely loathed it. But it was also disastrous politics. Bush's poll ratings, which had been phenomenally high, began to sink as soon as the deal was cut, and some pollsters even blame Bush's backtracking two years ago for the current popular disgust with politics-as-usual—because taxes were an issue of central importance not only to conservatives; Bush had made them central to himself in his campaign. Here, once again, are the words he used at the 1988 Republican Convention: "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." Reagan himself scarcely ever made such a sweeping campaign pledge. He hadn't needed to. He was defined by a lifetime of anti-tax rhetoric and action—a record that, paradoxically, allowed him when he was in the White House to raise certain taxes now and again without paying a political price. "Whenever Reagan went off track on issues," Weyrich recalls, "I couldn't get people to believe it. Every time I attacked Reagan, I suffered; Reagan didn't." Bush lacked the cushion of a Reaganite record on taxes. What he had instead was his pledge—until the budget deal. "When Bush decoupled from Ronald Reagan's agenda," Weyrich says, "he also decoupled from the public that had trusted him."
ush had one moment of recoupling the public and the movement, and it was impressive. The morning after Desert Storm began, the only thing most of Bush's conservative critics didn't trust was their own judgment. "By the time George Bush called the war off," Podhoretz remembers, "I had been so humbled" by what he had accomplished "that I decided he knew what he was doing." "Of course," Podhoretz adds, "he didn't."
Most of the movement supported Bush's actions from the invasion of Kuwait through Desert Storm. If anything, pro-War conservatives were surprised that Bush acted as forthrightly as he did. In this case they, and the rest of the world (including Saddam Hussein), misjudged their man, by ignoring his background. For much of this century American diplomacy has been informed by the ethos of the establishment that has largely run it. This ethos, George Kennan wrote, "grope[d] with unfailing persistence" for "formal criteria of a juridical nature by which the permissible behavior of states could be defined." When Saddam Hussein hoovered up Kuwait, he violated juridical criteria about as grossly as it is possible to do. It was entirely in character for someone of George Bush's station to move half a million soldiers around the world to undo the deed.
Once it became clear, however, that Desert Storiri had essentially restored the status quo ante—that undoing Saddam Hussein's deed was all that it had done—the movement was distressed. All the Administration's efforts to engineer an anti-Saddam Hussein coup did not mollify it. "We stopped three days short," Feulner says, "and didn't get rid of the SOB, who may still be there when George Bush has retired to Kennebunkport."
The endgame of the Gulf War suggested a generic problem with Bush's foreign policy. "Despite his rhetoric, Bush has consistently favored the Old World Order over the New World Order," Podhoretz says. "The informing idea of George Bush's foreign policy is that stability is the be-all and end-all. In every case [of crisis or conflict] except Israel the initial effort has been to maintain a status quo."
The status quo the movement liked least was the Soviet Union during the last years of Mikhail Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had also been fans of Gorbachev's, and Bush could claim to be simply following their example. But as the eighties passed into the nineties and it became evident that perestroika was a political balancing act rather than a program for continued reform, Bush's dogged support for its author rankled. On the eve of the August coup Bush went to the Ukraine—which, as a republic of the Soviet Union, still took an article—to warn against "suicidal nationalism"; the conservative columnist William Safire dubbed it "the Chicken Kiev speech." After the coup the United States was the thirty-seventh nation to recognize the Baltic states, neck-and-neck with Mongolia. Bush's defense of his go-slow policy is that it didn't break, so it didn't need to be fixed. That is, because the transition from Gorbachev and the Soviet Union to Yeltsin, Russia, and the Commonwealth of Independent States has been peaceful, give-or take a war or two in the Caucasus, Bush did the right thing in backing the old as long and the new as late as he did. But conservatives focus on the time that was lost. "There was a five-hundred-day period from October, 1990, to March, 1992," Feulner says, "in which we could very easily have had a new set of democratic states, with realigned economies starting from a much higher base. Had we not been propping up Gorby, we would have been on the road to reform earlier."
History repeated itself, this time as tragedy, in Yugoslavia. Feulner says, "James Baker's Belgrade speech in June, 1991," appealing for Yugoslavian unity, "delayed unified European action for six months," allowing the Boris Pugos of Serbia to consolidate their position and thus enabling them to reduce Dubrovnik and Sarajevo to rubble. Conservatives feel that in China, where the transition to freedom has not yet occurred, Bush has cosseted the leaders who bloodily forestalled it at Tiananmen Square. "The Reaganite policy," Podhoretz says, "would have been to side with the democratic insurgency," though he concedes that "Reagan might have betrayed his own policy." He finds the Bush Administration's "fixation on relations with China very difficult to understand." The rationale for playing the China card, he says, "used to be that China was a counterweight to the Soviet Union. We are now trying to develop a new rationale: that it is a counterweight to Japan. That's all desperate."
Conservative supporters of the Gulf War have continued to re-examine that famous victory. "Even if the Bush Administration had toppled Saddam Hussein," Podhoretz says, "they wanted to replace him with some Ba'athist thug who would hold Iraq together"—yet another counterweight, in this case against the menace of Iran. It was Bush's concern for adjusting the regional equipoise that caused him to support Saddam Hussein up to the eve of the invasion. "Bush and Baker," Feulner says, "are responsible for April Glaspie," the American ambassador to Iraq who told Saddam Hussein that border disputes were of no concern to us. "We have to look at the causes of the war."
Last year held one other serious disappointment for the movement besides the Iraqi dictator's survival. In November, George Bush signed the Civil Rights Act, which reverses recent Supreme Court decisions limiting the reach of affirmative-action programs. Bush had assailed earlier versions of it as a "quota bill," because the only way an employer could assure himself of avoiding affirmative-action litigation under its provisions would be by adopting de facto quotas in hiring. That analysis enraged the civil-rights lobby and other supporters of the bill—largely, one suspects, because they knew it was true, and politically damning. The civil-rights lobby was already reeling from Clarence Thomas's confirmation to the Supreme Court the month before. Quite apart from the psychodrama of Anita Hill's charges and Thomas's denials, the elevation to a position of such prominence of a black conservative who rejected many of the lobby's views undermined its claim to represent black opinion. Bush chose this moment of political and psychological advantage to hand his enemies a victory. The Administration claimed that the bill had been improved, and Bush issued an interpretive memo accompanying his signature which sought to put the best construction on it. But his basic motivation seemed to be discomfort with the conservative position he had previously staked out. "George Bush really didn't like the Willie Horton stuff" three years earlier, Weyrich speculates. "He was looking for ways to demonstrate that he was not anti-civil rights." This last backtrack was what finally tipped Buchanan into the race.
The Pinkerton Defense
or conservatives, the Bush record has not been all grim. In two important areas the President has lived up to the movement's expectations, or even exceeded them.
Four years ago the unhappiest Bush supporters in the movement were opponents of abortion. The message Bush "exudes to the activists," James P. McFadden, the editor of The Human Life Review, told me before the 1988 election, "is that it's an issue he doesn't care about. Most of them I'm in touch with are working for him, but they're bitching." Four years later doubts still linger. "Bush suffers from two problems," McFadden says now. "He doesn't know the lingo on the issue—it's like talking baseball to a guy who doesn't know the game—and there is nobody around George Bush who is anti-abortion, while there are an awful lot of people, especially his wife, who are pro." Nevertheless, the right-to-lifers are in Bush's camp, because Bush has stuck with them for four years. "As a matter of honor, we owe Bush our vote for what he's done," McFadden says. "You get little enough out of politicians; it's crazy not to vote for them when they do something for you."
The movement has also been satisfied with Bush's judicial appointments, despite anger over Justice David Souter's contributions to recent decisions reaffirming the principles of Roe v. Wade and the toxicity of school prayer. Bush has nominated conservative jurists—thanks to the advice of C. Boyden Gray, the counselor to the President—and has backed up his nominees. The Bush Administration "put more muscle into the Thomas fight than the Reagan Administration" put into the losing battle over Judge Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination, Bork himself says.
There are even stray members of the movement who will defend Bush's record in general. The most eloquent is James P. Pinkerton, formerly the deputy assistant to the President for policy planning. Last April, Pinkerton gave a speech at the Kennedy School of Government depicting Bush as a world-historical figure. "The great wave of our time," Pinkerton explained, "is the de-bureaucratization, de-socialization, and de-communization of America and the world." Bush is riding this wave, "creating a new post-bureaucratic society." Pinkerton gave examples: the Child Care Act of 1990, "a milestone … establishing the principle that parents, not bureaucrats, should decide who should care for kids"; the emissions-trading provisions of the Clean Air Act, which "harness for the first time the power of market forces to the task of environmental protection"; tenant management and ownership of public housing; and choice in schools. Pinkerton dwelt at length on the movement for school choice, whose "Harper's Ferry" he identified as the Wisconsin alliance of Polly Williams, a black Democratic state representative, and Tommy Thompson, the conservative Republican governor, to start a pilot program of school vouchers in Milwaukee. Because of these efforts, Pinkerton argued, the President whom Bush most resembles is Abraham Lincoln: "Both came in as moderates, both tried to conciliate," both ended by ushering in a "new paradigm for American society."
When I spoke to Pinkerton, he conceded that Bush is "not the kind of communicator" that the author of the Gettysburg Address was, but he insisted that the anti-bureaucratic message gets across nonetheless. "In almost every speech he gives, George Bush mentions school choice. Does it make the front page of The New York Times or The Washington Post No, of course not. But in every audience there is one person who thinks, Why don't I do that for myself? The seed of the key question of who decides"—bureaucrats or citizens—"is being planted everywhere across the country." Speeches are fine, I said, but what about action? Why, when Pinkerton spoke at the Kennedy School about school choice, did he have to cite the actions of Williams and Thompson, rather than those of, say, Lamar Alexander, Bush's Secretary of Education? "If the President had not been talking" about the issue, Pinkerton replied, "it would have been too easy for Wisconsin establishmentarians to knock it down."
Jack Kemp, still soldiering on at HUD, makes a similar argument. What conservatives have gained over the past four years has been "nothing of legislative substance as much as changing the terms of the debate." "It is fair to say," Kemp admits, that his own hobbyhorses, such as tenant ownership and urban enterprise zones, "weren't sufficiently pushed." But he lays the "preponderance of the burden of resistance" on Congress.
To sum up the conservative pro-Bush argument of 1992: Bush is a peer of Lincoln's, because of half a dozen initiatives that on close inspection often turn out to be speeches about initiatives—speeches that are, admittedly, not Lincolnesque. No wonder the rest of the movement isn't buying the argument. Even granting that rhetoric is all that a Democratic Congress will permit Bush to achieve, why is the rhetoric scattered in discrete speeches, instead of being fused into a coherent political agenda? When Harry Truman failed to push his agenda through the Eightieth Congress, he branded it the "do-nothing Congress," and salvaged a losing presidential campaign. Conservatives disagree about some of the pet projects of their lonely soulmates in the Bush Admirtistration: for instance, since most people—rich, middling, and poor—don't work where they live, why favor enterprise zones in slums over pro-business tax cuts across the board? But these objections can't be raised, because the projects themselves haven't been raised in any serious way; the Bush Administration as a whole is not serious about them. After the Los Angeles riots Kemp was plucked from his broom closet and given unwonted prominence. As the riots fade in memory, what is to prevent him from being shut up once more?
Pinkerton gave his first speech on "the new paradigm" almost two years to the day before his speech at the Kennedy School. It provoked a response, some months later, from Budget Director Richard Darman, which Washingtonians thought of as witty. Darman's title gives the flavor: "Neo-Neo-ism: Reflections on Hubble-ism, Rationalism, and the Pursuit of Excellence (After the Fiscal Follies)." If Bush is Lincoln, then Darman must be witty. "The problem with all these New Thises and New Thats," Darman said, "is that, however seriously intended, they can be little more than slogans. . . . They do not actually solve problems. They leave undecided most of the hard choices of detailed program design and resource allocation." They make Bush advisers say, Forget it.
Conservatives attacked Darman's attack on the new paradigm, and most scorekeepers of the dustup awarded Pinkerton the moral victory. But Darman remained budget director, while Pinkerton was seconded from the White House to the Bush-Quayle campaign committee, where, as a conservative who believes in something, he can be closer to the rhetoric and further from the hard choices.
Even as scattered disappointments may not ultimately disappoint, so scattered satisfactions do not necessarily satisfy. Abortion, the judiciary, a sprinkling of speeches—these are better than anything the movement could expect from any conceivable Democrat. But they aren't enough.
"Nothing Fails Like Success"
or the past two and a half years, the movement that spent the eighties on top of the political world has watched the pieces of its agenda drift out to sea. This is bad for George Bush, because he has needed an agenda to be a successful President and to compile a record on which to run for re-election, but he gives no sign of replacing his abandoned conservative one with any alternative. Problem-solving, the goal of Darman and practical men in all ages and times, cannot take the place of ideas, because without ideas the problem-solver has no way of knowing which problems are most important, or what the range of tolerable solutions might be. Success alone can never be a guide to political, action, for "nothing," as G. K. Chesterton wrote, "fails like success."
"If you don't have an alternative," Feulner asks, "what's the answer? Falling asleep on the 'no' button? The fundamental error in politics is to assume that the other guy is standing still. If you're standing on the defensive, and not constantly pushing, you're only going to lose more slowly."
Bush's derelictions have been bad for the movement as well. The movement certainly performed badly on the hustings this year. In a parliamentary democracy Bush's betrayals would have caused resignations and rebellion. 'Even under the American system a political sect worth its salt would have offered a protest candidate. But the glamour boys of the right—Kemp, Bennett, Pete Du Pont—sat out the dance, and the task fell to Buchanan. So the movement's notion of a fit challenger to a President whose few accomplishments include giving speeches was someone whose only accomplishment was writing them. At that, Buchanan had twice as much relevant experience as Ross Perot.
But the real damage that the movement has suffered at Bush's hands is intellectual. It has lost ground that it had thought of as secure, and it has lost time that ought to have been spent developing new approaches to new problems. Weyrich mentions a few: "Deficits—no one talks about them. The deteriorating culture—no one touches it" (no one, that is, apart from Vice President Quayle, the antagonist of Murphy Brown). "In the late seventies polls showed that the word 'conservative' had a positive image. As we come into the mid-nineties, that is no longer true. The Reagan-Bush coalition is dead. The movement that existed has been shattered. The principles it stood for are still true, but we need to find a way to reassert them."
After the doldrums of the Bush years, some conservatives have given up even the effort of reassertion. Wick Allison, a former publisher of National Review, first met George Bush twenty-four years ago. Bush got him his first job, on the President's Commission on Campus Unrest. Early this summer, the summer of our discontent, Allison lined up behind Ross Perot, not as a candidate with whom he agreed but as a force of nature—a destructive force of nature. "I've got two choices," Allison told me, speaking just before Perot's exit. "To hold my nose and vote for Bush, or to throw a nuclear bomb. I know Perot's not good on abortion or gay rights"—he might have added industrial policy, free trade, the Gulf War. "But let's throw the bomb anyway."
Isn't that desperation? I asked.
"Absolutely," he said. "Desperation and disgust. Issues," he went on, "do not matter; overarching themes matter—leadership, betrayal, the feeling that our country's falling apart. We think issues won the 1980 election, but they didn't. The guy who won just happened to be our guy. The decision in the voting booth is an emotional decision, not a calculation—not even a calculation of self-interest." Bombs away.
Perot, as it turned out, did not outlast the lightning bugs. Yet the temptation he posed to Allison and other equally desperate conservatives is troubling. The conclusion that someone like Perot might be an acceptable alternative because issues don't in fact affect elections is only a step away from thinking that issues don't affect politics—that, indeed, ideas don't. It would be ironic if George Bush's true accomplishment were to remake the movement in his own image.
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Copyright © 1992 by Richard Brookhiser. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1992; Gravedigger of the Revolution; Volume 270, No. 4; pages 70-78.