More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"George W., Knight of Eulogia" (May 2000)
A rare look inside Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society and sometime haunt of the presumptive Republican nominee for President. By Alexandra Robbins
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "What Makes W. Tick?" (March 11, 2003)
The historian and journalist Richard Brookhiser weighs in on George W. Bush—his management style, his mean streak, his religiosity, and his recovery from alcoholism.
Flashbacks: "American President" (February 20, 1997)
A look back at some considerations of Presidents and the presidency that have appeared in The Atlantic through the years.
Like Father, Unlike Son
March 26, 2003
n 1991, President George Bush directed the U.S. military into battle against Saddam Hussein. A little over a decade later, a second President George Bush is doing the same. Though in some ways it seems that history is repeating itself, George the younger is a very different man from George the elder. Whereas George W. Bush has been characterized—and criticized—as a leader who makes decisive split-second judgments and singlemindedly follows through on issues he cares about, his father, by contrast, was seen as a leader who preferred to avoid taking decisive or dramatic action. As an assortment of Atlantic articles from the 1980s and 1990s demonstrates, Bush the elder seems to have endured as much criticism for his perceived hesitancy and cautiousness as his son now endures for his perceived reckless determination.
In "The Republicans in '88" (July 1987) William Schneider argued that as a presidential candidate, Bush suffered from a "crisis of Vice-Presidential loyalty." Vice Presidents, Schneider pointed out, are prized for their loyalty to the President, and Bush had excelled in this regard. But, Schneider pointed out,
That same quality makes for a poor presidential candidate ... Voters do not value "loyalty" in a President; they value independence and leadership, the image of a candidate as "his own man."
On paper, Schneider noted, Bush looked like an excellent, highly qualified candidate.
He served two terms as a congressman from Texas. He lost two Senate elections (good for humility). He was the chief United States delegate to the United Nations. He was the chairman of the Republican National Committee (during Watergate, no less). He was the U.S. envoy to China. He was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He ran for President. And he was elected and re-elected Vice President of the United States.
But in spite of those impressive credentials, Bush couldn't seem to bring himself to step out from Reagan's long shadow.
Bush knows that he is under pressure to differ from Reagan's policies, to reveal a message or vision of his own. But he also knows that the minute he distances himself from the Reagan Administration, he risks giving up his strongest advantage. So far he has played it safe and been impeccably loyal. He has done no more than hint at his own priorities.
Because there was little articulated policy or ideology to criticize, those reluctant to support the Bush ticket focused on his background. To conservatives, his was little more than an "establishment career"—lacking any decisive agenda. And his aristocratic heritage was viewed as a real liability. Schneider suggested that when Alabama's lieutenant governor, Bill Blaxley, described Bush as "a pin-stripin', polo playin', umbrella-totin' Ivy Leaguer, born with a silver spoon so far back in his mouth that you couldn't get it out without a crowbar," he was expressing a widely held view.
The following year, William F. Buckley argued in "Bush for President" (October 1988) that Americans should support Bush precisely because of his sameness, predictability, and identification with Ronald Reagan. To reject Bush, he argued, would be "to turn our backs on the policies that have brought us peace and prosperity these past seven years."
He conceded that Bush was hardly a dynamic leader, but he argued that sometimes dynamism is not what is called for:
Now, George Bush is correctly viewed as something less than (or other than, if you prefer) an evangelist. He is not William Wilberforce or John Brown or Theodore Roosevelt. He is a consolidator.
A majority of Americans apparently agreed with Buckley, because the following month they voted overwhelmingly to promote Bush to the presidency.
George Bush on television does not display his best qualities, any more than did Harry Truman, or Dwight Eisenhower. At some point we will, I think, need to focus on the question Do we insist on a telegenic President? Bush has, in the phrase of one observer, filled about half the jobs there are in government. A defective character would by now be public knowledge. Those who have worked with him (which I have not done) agree that he has been tested by more varied experience of national government than any other applicant for the presidency in this century. Bush knows in his bones what a President Dukakis could learn only by an arduous tutelage of high potential cost.
But two years later, in "The In-Box President" (January 1990), William Schneider suggested that by selecting Bush, Americans may have settled for passionless efficiency. Schneider described Bush's leadership as lackluster in comparison with the engaging leadership of Ronald Reagan:
Reagan's style was to take a firm stand, rally public support, and challenge Congress to give him what he wanted. Bush's style is to make a deal. He negotiates quietly, outside the glare of publicity and with as little rancor as possible. He then announces a compromise, shifts his position to accommodate the outcome, and invites the country to applaud the spirit of bipartisanship and cooperation.
Schneider made similar criticisms of Bush's cabinet and presidential staff.
Bush sees the President as the great facilitator, not the great communicator. His is an unheroic politics in which everything, or almost everything, is negotiable. Reagan believed that raising the minimum wage was wrong, that Americans have an absolute right to bear arms, and that the Sandinista government is an intolerable threat to U.S. security. Bush has been willing to compromise on all these points.
These people are not agenda-setters. They are problem-solvers. Like Bush himself, they offer strong qualifications and considerable experience. Moreover, they have records of accomplishment independent of their relationship with George Bush. With Bush the rule seems to be no ideological hard-liners, no Evil Empire-baiters, no economic cranks, "no Bozos." And no bold new ideas.
Even the Bush Administration's approach to foreign policy smacked of timidity and a tendency to cling to the status quo. Schneider dubbed 1989, a year highlighted by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of a thaw in Soviet-American relations, a "Year of Missed Opportunities." The Bush Administration's reluctance to develop a new relationship with the Soviet Union in light of increasing Communist reform had led onlookers to wonder if his Defense Department and strategists were nostalgic for the height of the Cold War. And when the wall fell in Berlin, instead of taking the opportunity to issue an inspiring Kennedy-esque declaration along the lines of "We are all Berliners now," Bush was quoted as saying only, "We are not trying to give anybody a hard time."
What all this professionalism adds up to is not exactly leadership. It is more like management. Bush's policies have been reactive. The United States responds, cautiously and reluctantly, to others' proposals. It is an in-box approach to governing. You respond to problems as they reach your desk, and you do whatever is necessary to get them off your desk.
Shortly before the 1992 election Richard Brookhiser interviewed Bush and, in "A Visit With George Bush" (August 1992), offered an assessment of his presidency and his character. Like so many others, Brookhiser took issue with Bush's lack of forcefulness.
Bush's hesitations and silences might seem charming, even admirable, a kind of WASP reticence, if they did not recall another reluctance of his: the reluctance to define himself, or indeed, to define anything.
His desire to avoid rocking the boat or putting himself forward, Brookhiser suggested, seemed to stem in part from his background, which, Brookhiser pointed out, was not as solidly aristocratic as most people had been led to believe.
An aspect of Bush that Bush-watchers still regularly get wrong is his social class. The Bushes, who were rich by anybody's yardstick, were not very rich, like the Kennedys, nor were they old money, like the Roosevelts. This is not a mere sociological curiosity but a clue to Bush's temperament. Though his father, Prescott, was the son of an Ohio steel-castings manufacturer, he worked his way through the managerial ranks from a St. Louis hardware company to a partnership in Brown Brothers, Harriman and Company. Similarly, George Bush went from college not to Wall Street but to West Texas, to make his nut in the oil business—although much of his capital came from friends and family back east.... Bush is not self-made, but neither was he idle—he did some work for his pile. As a result, he lacks the confidence, or the compulsion, to go against the grain.
Even in directing harsh words toward Saddam Hussein, Brookhiser pointed out, Bush seemed to undermine his message with a contradictory demeanor.
When Bush announced the start of Desert Storm on television, he was steady and forceful—Bush at his best. The only thing that troubled me was the odd, half-smile he wore, until [it was] explained to me that it may have been a pre-emptive apology for thrusting himself forward at such a time. Winning and wanting to win are everything; saying so is problematic.
Bush did seem to rise to the occasion during times of crisis, Brookhiser observed, but his tentativeness always returned as soon as the tension level had subsided.
When Sadaam Hussein vacuumed up Kuwait, it was as if a switch flipped in Bush's brain. He knew how to handle aggressors: fight them. He had fought aggressors himself, as a kid out of prep school volunteering to be a Navy Pilot.
Two months later, just a month before the 1992 election, Brookhiser again weighed in on Bush, this time criticizing him for abandoning the conservative cause. Bush's greatest betrayal, Brookhiser argued, had been his decision to raise taxes after having emphatically declared, "Read my lips: No new taxes."
But before and after crises comes business as usual, which Bush does indeed conduct by dealing with what he finds on his desk every day when he gets in.
Other perceived failures were his lack of follow-through on ousting Saddam, his reluctance to push for faster social and political reform in the Soviet Union, and his signing of a Civil Rights Act that reversed a previous Supreme Court limitation on affirmative action.
Under Bush's leadership, Brookhiser wrote, "the movement that spent the eighties on top of the political world has watched the pieces of its agenda drift out to sea." He quoted Paul Weyrich, the founding president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who felt that more than anything else what was required now was a return to firm principles:
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.
But by paving the way for his strong-willed son, Bush's presidency may, in the end, have had a strengthening effect on the conservative movement after all.
Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
Nathan Deuel is a new media intern for The Atlantic. He
is the co-founder of Six
Billion, an online magazine of narrative journalism.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.