Father Figured

George Herbert Walker Bush (Penguin Lives Series)
By Tom Wicker, Lipper/Viking, 228 pages, $19.95

Who would have thought just a few years ago that George Herbert Walker Bush would, to put it a bit cruelly, be relevant again? When he left office in January 1993, ceding the White House to a new party, a new generation, and a new governing philosophy, Bush seemed to slink off into the cavernous warehouse of history, settling into a nook alongside the undistinguished presidents of yesteryear. Undermined by the political right, abandoned by his predecessor's "Reagan Democrats," routed by the youthful, can-do Bill Clinton, Bush by the end was fatalistically watching the sands run out on his own tenure. James Carville compared him to an old calendar.

By the time of Bush's departure, Americans had practically forgotten his justly celebrated expulsion of Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait two years earlier. Bush himself had fed this amnesia by failing to bring the tyrant to justice. More important, he never understood that jobs and health care matter as much as (and sometimes more than) war and peace -- or that his laissez-faire nostrums and hands-off economic management struck voters as cluelessness or, worse, indifference.

Today, however, after a second George Bush as president, a second war in Iraq, and a second economic slump that trickle-down bromides have failed to fix, the past has suddenly returned as prologue. The elder Bush's presidency assumes new meaning as a precursor of his son's. Tom Wicker, the longtime reporter and liberal columnist for The New York Times, who retired in 1991, has written a short biography of Bush Senior for Viking's "Penguin Lives" series. The book offers no groundbreaking research or revelations, but, in the spirit of the series, provides a concise and trenchant assessment of Bush's career at a time when readers may wish to revisit it.

While hewing to familiar sources, facts, and episodes, Wicker nonetheless persuasively revises Bush's popular image. We typically think of the good-natured "Poppy" as benign if a bit ineffectual, a "kinder, gentler" Ronald Reagan. Lacking the Gipper's dynamism and ideological vigor, Bush offered instead an air of decorum and conciliation rooted in the noblesse oblige of his Yankee lineage. No phrase captures Bush's signature caution better than the mantra of his Saturday Night Live impersonator Dana Carvey: "Wouldn't be prudent."

Wicker's portrait -- largely unflattering but in no way strident--shows a man far less high-minded and honorable than his demeanor suggested. The geniality, the mild temper, and the impeccable manners, Wicker suggests, camouflaged an "overweening ambition" that drove Bush to make crass compromises. His hunger for the presidency led him to toss aside his moderate views to appease the ever-more conservative Republican base and to campaign viciously in tight races. Yet when he finally seized the brass ring, Wicker suggests, he lacked the vision to be more than a "caretaker."

Bush began compromising early. In 1964, when he ran for the Senate as a successful young Texas oilman, the frontier conservatives of the Lone Star State warily eyed this blue-blooded scion of the moderate Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush. To prove his bona fides, Bush jettisoned his support for the United Nations and denounced the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Where Prescott's wing of the GOP had rallied to the quest for racial equality, Bush now lined up behind Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in opposing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet Bush lost the race anyway.

Two years later, however, the ambitious Bush won election to the House of Representatives. He would subsequently write of his dismay at having been "swamped in the black precincts" in 1966, despite "an all-out effort to attract black voters." Wicker tartly retorts: "Can he have forgotten that he had opposed the Civil Rights Act ... ? Or did he believe that blacks should know that a Yale-educated candidate of good family could not be racially biased and was for them in his heart, no matter how political circumstances might have forced him to vote?" Here and throughout the book, Wicker pinpoints Bush's discomfort with taking the tough stands that politics requires, his wish to be appreciated for his decency and competence alone.

Bush lost another Senate bid in 1970. But by then he had woven a large and tight web of contacts, famously dashing off piles of handwritten notes to an ever-expanding roster of friends and potential supporters. He parlayed his connections into a series of appointive positions in the Nixon and Ford White Houses: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, liaison to China (just before the two nations' restoration of full diplomatic relations), and head of the CIA.

These years were probably Bush's happiest. Appointive office spared him the shabby business of posturing and courting votes and invested him with meaningful authority within his specialized spheres. And if four years in the House and six at executive posts didn't normally make someone a presidential contender, Bush's networking had gained him enough respect within the party to make him a credible choice in 1980. A hair's-breadth victory in the Iowa caucuses over Reagan that year established Bush as a moderate alternative to the right-wing front-runner, and at that summer's convention Reagan anointed him his running mate to unify the party.

Though hardly unique among vice-presidential aspirants, the flip-flops that Bush executed upon joining the ticket -- deep-sixing his scorn for what he had called "voodoo economics," U-turning from abortion rights to anti-abortion -- continued the pattern of subordinating principle to ambition. So, too, did his behavior in the Iran-Contra affair, a subject on which Wicker is especially sharp. Wicker establishes that Bush, despite his denials, was demonstrably present at White House meetings in 1985 and 1986 dealing with the secret trade of arms to Iran for American hostages in Lebanon. Yet Bush never questioned the controversial policy, perhaps disinclined to take on the hard-liners whose support he would need in his own upcoming presidential bid.

Wicker is even more unsparing on the 1988 campaign. This time Bush compromised not only his political principles and his judgment but also his belief in fair play. Fending off a surge by his longtime rival Bob Dole after the Iowa caucuses, Bush initially blanched at running a TV ad in New Hampshire that attacked Dole for "straddling" on the key question of tax increases. But in the face of weak poll numbers and a nagging public image as a "wimp," Bush capitulated to the take-no-prisoners counsel of Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, and his eldest son, George W. Bush. He won New Hampshire and the nomination.

In the fall, Bush waged what Wicker calls "one of the most slashing attack campaigns in presidential history." He trashed Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis with his famously scurrilous race-baiting and aspersions on the Greek American's patriotism. Wicker notes more than once that Bush claimed he would do whatever was necessary to win.

Ironically for Bush, his embrace of the far right's agenda and his newly lacerating style failed to earn him, as president, the trust of the ultraconservatives. And when pangs of responsibility (or worries about getting re-elected) led him to renege on his no-new-taxes pledge from 1988, Republican Whip Newt Gingrich and the right felt confirmed in their view that Bush was no true believer.

The Gulf War, which Wicker fairly credits as Bush's finest hour, helped the president unite his party -- along with many others -- behind his leadership. Taking a page from Dukakis' 1988 foreign- policy platform, he patiently built global support behind a campaign to enforce international law. But the eventual victory failed to sustain his popularity through economic hard times. By 1992, the liberation of Kuwait seemed tangential to Americans' well-being. Bush dusted off his 1988 playbook to go after Bill Clinton as a draft dodger and '60s flower child, but this time around his fighting spirit struck too many voters as desperation. On election day, Bush's percentage of the vote was the lowest of any incumbent in 80 years.

It would have been helpful if Wicker had provided more of an overview of Bush's presidency, apart from the familiar high points. The book could have delved into any number of understudied issues from those years, like Bush's environmental policies or the festering of urban problems. Yet Wicker set out to write not a policy assessment but a pithy character study. The character is that of a man whose ambition too often overrode his decency. And character, we know, matters -- influencing the choices that presidents make in office, the mood they set for the public, and, not least, the values they instill in their children.

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