Why George H. W. Bush Struggled to Connect With America

The modern presidency has often been judged by how well the president speaks to the American people. Still, Bush seemed uncomfortable with the kind of communication required of the nation’s executive.

Handout / Reuters

Amid the outpouring of tributes honoring the life and, by some measures, underrated presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush—who died Saturday at the age of 94—is the inevitable criticism of his communication skills. In his brilliant book What It Takes, about the 1988 presidential campaign, Richard Ben Cramer captured the problem in a nutshell: “People thought the President’s speeches didn’t pack any punch, so they sacked the speechwriters and gave Bush new words to prove he cared about the recession.”

Bush was widely understood to be an old-fashioned gentleman. His persona was neither affectation nor artifice. He was, by all accounts, a person of strong character and genuine compassion. He was a good man. And yet he seemed oddly unable to communicate empathy to the American people. The most infamous example was on the 1992 debate stage, when he appeared flummoxed and then defensive in response to a question about how the national debt affected him personally. Bill Clinton, in his singular style, swooped in to engage with the questioner—a moment that arguably helped win him the election.

The modern presidency has often—perhaps too often, even for me, a speechwriter—been judged by how well the person behind the Resolute Desk speaks to the American people. Still, Bush seemed notably uncomfortable with the kind of communication required of the nation’s executive. Someone whose most famous sound bite—“Read my lips: no new taxes”—backfired in spectacular fashion would understandably be wary of rhetorical flourish. But at key moments, when he needed to explain a position, persuade an audience, or move the country to follow his course of action, he did not muster either the right words or the will to use them.

The explanations for this blind spot typically include the following: Bush was raised by a mother, Dorothy, who instilled in her son a fierce humility, famously teaching him to avoid talking about himself. He fully absorbed this lesson, which might be why an athletic fighter pilot and World War II hero could get painted as a wimp by his political opponents. He was, depending on your interpretation, either a class act who preferred not to show emotion or a patrician aristocrat who couldn’t begin to sympathize with the plight of everyday Americans. His biographer, Jon Meacham, noted that it wasn’t easy to follow in the rhetorical footsteps of the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan. And, we are told, Bush was a doer, more comfortable in appointed positions than elected ones, who believed that his work would speak for itself.

These accounts may be true, but they are unsatisfying. It wasn’t just his manner and breeding that flattened his communication. There was something half-hearted in his outreach, as though he didn’t quite believe whatever it was that he was saying.

It is in fact fair to ask, what did Bush believe in?

On the global stage, his views were clear, his actions decisive, in part because he led at a time when rank partisanship had not so openly poisoned American foreign policy. Bush was an internationalist—what today’s Republicans would derisively call a globalist—and a successful one at that.

But at home, the contours were vague, his positions reactive rather than convicted. Divining Bush’s political philosophy or ideology is difficult other than to say that he was a Republican—which, given its many possible meanings, is simply not enough. He rose through the political ranks during a time of upheaval within the Republican Party, as conservatives, emboldened by Reagan’s stunning success, accumulated power. But Bush tried to navigate the changes without ever clearly staking out his own terms. And this vacuum was at the heart of his communication failures.

His first foray into Houston politics was to keep his county’s Republican committee out of the hands of right-wing extremists. But then when he ran (unsuccessfully) for Senate in 1964, he aligned himself with that same right wing, even criticizing the Civil Rights Act. Two years later, when he ran for Congress, he backtracked on those positions, reportedly saying that he wouldn’t swing right to win an election again. This time, he spoke in favor of “equal opportunity” and LBJ’s Great Society.

Later, during the 1980 primary, he famously criticized Reagan’s supply-side fetish as “voodoo economics”—and then went on to serve as his opponent’s vice president, dutifully defending trickle-down policies. And despite his previous pledge not to swing right for political expediency, Bush attacked Democrat Michael Dukakis over his state's furlough program, an attack many saw as designed to stoke racial fears. As president, after he reneged on his pledge not to raise taxes in order to sign a budget deal with Democrats, he promised he was “absolutely going to hold the line on taxes from now on.”

All this was pragmatic, of course. The man was a party loyalist—Bush, as RNC chair, defended Richard Nixon until the end. Perhaps his rank left him unable to speak truth to rising power within his own party, but when he was caught doing the right thing—and the budget deal was certainly the right thing—he did not even try to defend it and persuade his fellow Republicans to see what he saw, instead insisting, yet again, that next time would be different.

The best presidential communicators are true believers in their cause—not necessarily in an unseemly ideological sense, but in a way that conveys their view of what America can and should be. Bush’s life and legacy are, in many ways, a testament to just such an America, and yet his wavering at critical times was no service. Was he, at heart, the Republican whose agenda—promoting volunteerism, shepherding the Americans With Disabilities Act, signing the United States to the UN’s Convention on Climate Change—would be unrecognizable to the dystopian party of Donald Trump? Or was he a faithful foot soldier in his party’s decades-long rightward march to its present-day location?

When a young Bush bragged about the goals he’d scored in a soccer game, his mom said, “That’s nice, George, but how did the team do?” This kind of admonition helped drive our 41st president into a life of selfless, patriotic service to our nation. Looking back, however, one wonders: If Bush had publicly and forcefully clarified his own beliefs, perhaps the political team he spent his life serving might more accurately reflect that which was best in him.