GOP Nominees Didn't Always Run As Bellicose Nationalists

Comparing Mitt Romney's RNC speech to what the last Republican president with a successful foreign-policy record said

My colleague James Bennet, The Atlantic's editor, points to the speech above, George H.W. Bush's acceptance speech at the 1988 RNC, as one of the most successful convention speeches of the modern era. I watched it on television, but I was also only eight years old at the time, so I returned to it last night, and it only deepened my nostalgia for a bygone Republican Party. I prefer the elder Bush to his son, to Bob Dole, to John McCain, and to Mitt Romney.

I prefer him to Barack Obama too.

One reason among several is the way that he talked about war. His words reflected the hard won wisdom of World War II veterans much more than the bellicose rhetoric of today's Republican hawks, many of whom never served and know war only as an abstract intellectual exercise. It is no surprise that they see war as ennobling, and urge more of it. The elder Bush was different.

He spoke about liberals and American exceptionalism in ways that would fit in Republican speeches today (that is to say, he marshaled nationalist rhetoric):

My opponent's view of the world sees a long slow decline for our country, an inevitable fall, mandated by impersonal, historical forces. But America is not in decline. America is a rising nation. He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. And I see America as the leader, a unique nation with a special role in the world. This has been called the American century because in it we were the dominant force for good in the world. We saved Europe. Cured polio. Went to the moon. And lit the world with our culture. And now we're on the verge of a new century. And what country's name will it bear? I say it will be another American century. Our work is not done, our force is not spent.

This is where John McCain or Condoleezza Rice would launch into a defense of interventionism abroad, and suggest that the American military should be lengthening its occupations, intervening in countries where boots aren't currently on the ground, and advancing our values through the force of arms.

Here's what Bush said next:

There are those who say there isn't much of a difference this year, but America, don't let them fool you. Two parties this year ask for your support. Both will speak of growth and peace. But only one has proved it can deliver. Two parties this year ask for your trust. But only one has earned it.
Eight years ago I stood here with Ronald Reagan and we promised together to break with the past and return America to her greatness. Eight years later look at what the American people have produced. The highest level of economic growth in our entire history. And the lowest level of world tensions in more than 50 years.  

Later in the speech, he said this:

Our economic life is not the only test of success. One issue overwhelms all the others. And that's the issue of peace. And look at the world on this bright August night. The spirit of democracy is sweeping the Pacific Rim. China feels the winds of change. New democracies assert themselves in South America. And one by one, the unfree places fall, not to the force of arms but to the force of an idea: freedom works. We have a new relationship with the Soviet Union, the INF treaty, the beginning of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the beginning of the end of the proxy war in Angola, and with it the independence of Namibia, Iran and Iraq move toward peace. It's a watershed.
It is no accident. It happened when we acted on the ancient knowledge that strength and clarity lead to peace, weakness and ambivalence lead to war. You see weakness tempts aggressors. Strength stops them. I will not allow this country to be made weak again. Never. The tremors in the Soviet world continue. The hard earth there has not yet settled. Perhaps what is happening will change our world for ever and perhaps not. A prudent skepticism is in order. And so is hope. But either way we are in an unprecedented position to change the nature of our relationship, not by preemptive concession, but by keeping our strength. Not by yielding up defense systems with nothing won in return but by hard, cool engagement in the tug and pull of diplomacy.     

This isn't, you'll note, the speech of an "isolationist." Neither is it a speech anyone in the mainstream of the GOP would give today. It extols spreading freedom through strength of ideas rather than arms, and expresses the power of diplomacy to solve problems even between America and "the Evil Empire."

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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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