George H.W. Bush: 'Romney Is the Best Choice'

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The former president expressed his support for the Massachusetts governor but claimed, strangely, that it wasn't 'an endorsement.'

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In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, former president George H.W. Bush threw his support behind Mitt Romney in the GOP primaries. "I think Romney is the best choice for us," he said. "I like Perry, but he doesn't seem to be going anywhere; he's not surging forward... stability, experience, principles. He's a fine person... I just think he's mature and reasonable -- not a bomb-thrower."

Bush explained that he doesn't much care for Newt Gingrich due to a decades old personal slight:

"I'm not his biggest advocate," he said."I had a conflict with him at one point," Bush recalled, alluding to the crucial moment in 1990 when a recession drove him to renege on his "no new taxes" pledge. He needed a bipartisan group of party leaders, including then-House Whip Gingrich, to stand with him.

"He was there, right outside the Oval Office. I met with all the Republican leaders, all the Democratic leaders," Bush recalled. "The plan was, we were all going to walk out into the Rose Garden and announce this deal. Newt was right there. Got ready to go out in the Rose Garden, and I said, 'Where's Gingrich?' Went up to Capitol Hill. He was here a minute ago. Went up there and started lobbying against the thing.

"He told me one time later on, he said, 'This is the most difficult thing I ever had to do.' I said, 'I didn't like it much myself, Newt.'"

Is it just me, or is that an absurdly frivolous reason for determining whether or not to support Gingrich's presidential campaign? Republicans are trying to make up their minds about who would be the best president, and the insight a guy who held the job finds most relevant for sharing is that Gingrich bailed on a 1990 press conference after promising to attend? A colleague points out that there is a charitable explanation for what Bush was perhaps trying to say:

If it hadn't been for the campaign against Bush for raising taxes in an environment when it arguably made sense to do so, Bush might have had a better chance of winning a second term. That was the moment the anti-tax orthodoxy began to become more important than governance. So what Bush is saying is that Gingrich is a) not a reliable negotiating partner and b) someone more interested in political grandstanding than governing. Neither of which are really small things, considering.

That is a plausible takeaway from Bush's remarks - one that requires more political sophistication to discern than the average voter possesses. And let's be honest: there are bigger reasons than that to keep Gingrich out of the White House. But former presidents, for better or worse, generally regard it as uncouth to say things like, "This man is too erratic and hubristic to trust with the American military."

I understand why former presidents often decide against remarking on elections at all, and why they tend to tread lightly when they do. But I think I'd prefer a different approach to being elder statesman, wherein past presidents abandon all loyalty to party and give detailed, experience based observations about the candidates running and their strengths and weaknesses. It seems doubtful that Carter, Bush, Clinton and Bush would ever back the same candidate, or that their remarks would have a huge impact on elections, but were they forthright and detailed in their critiques, I can't believe that there wouldn't be valuable perspective gained from their various insights and the debates that would inevitably develop among them.  

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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