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Death of a statesman: George H.W. Bush’s legacy

What Bush’s legacy tells us about the modern presidency.

reagan and bush
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Photo Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images

President George H.W. Bush’s legacy will be shaped by the political moment at which he died. At least, the first round of takes and analyses seems to focus heavily on the contrast between his political style and that of President Donald Trump, and the ways in which the Republican Party has changed since 1992.

These comparisons lend themselves to similar conclusions: that Bush was a leader who had some bipartisan accomplishments, who united the nation around foreign policy goals (heavy set of asterisks here for those who did not share his goals or were harmed by them), and who wrote a gracious note to Bill Clinton after the 1992 election. Even before his death, Bush’s pragmatism had been elevated to full-blown statesmanship.

Detractions from this narrative have mentioned Bush’s 1988 Willie Horton ad, which stoked racial fears, and his neglect of the growing AIDS crisis.

There are obvious reasons why even a fairly minimal commitment to bipartisanship, combined with interest in foreign policy, might be an especially potent nostalgia formula right now. But it’s also worth considering how this approach was received at the time, and what the challenges that Bush faced tell us about the evolution of the presidency as an institution.

He was a president of limited rhetorical talent in a time of a highly personalized and media-packaged presidential politics. His presidency followed that of an important party icon, something he struggled with during that particular moment.

Bush’s presidency, both as it really was and in its retrospective treatment, tells us about what modern presidential politics forgives, rewards, and punishes — and about the gap between the abstract depiction of the presidency and its concrete reality.

First, it’s not entirely an accident that Bush was a single-term president couched between two leaders who were known for their communication skill and style. It’s also true that the abilities of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to magically alter the preferences of the electorate are mostly a myth. At the same time, their public personas were a lot different from Bush’s, in ways that were consequential for the presidency.

Although many have remembered Bush’s warmth and humor in the days since his passing, when he was president he was often depicted as distant and awkward. There are lots of possible explanations for why the 1992 election turned out as it did. But Clinton’s strength wasn’t his experience, and it certainly wasn’t his impeccable character; it was his ability to convey warmth and empathy.

Similarly, Reagan’s presidency is frequently regarded as a turning point in “candidate-centered politics,” in which candidates could take advantage of the new nomination system; attract media attention through a savvy, telegenic, and likable persona; and engage voters directly without party intermediaries.

The promise of a candidate-centric presidential politics that transcended partisanship never materialized. Metrics of likability and sociability for presidential aspirants, on the other hand, appear to be here to stay.

Reagan and Clinton may have set the standard for the use of 20th-century forms like the television ad or the primetime address. But Bush’s own son also fit into this presidential mold, satisfying voters as a promising drinking buddy and a leader of authentic moral character.

Presidential media profiles have become increasingly polarized, it seems, in each successive term. We know neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump scored well in this regard, but both loom as big figures, distinct and well-known personalities who can crowd rivals out of the media landscape.

And the basic foundation remains: Presidents pretty much need to command media attention, offer compelling rhetoric (this takes wildly different forms for different candidates), and have at least one communication setting in which they excel. As Lori Cox Han points out in her book about George H. W. Bush’s communication strategy, Bush and his advisers may have “put too much faith in the American public, and the news media, to appreciate a more substantive presidency with less public relations flair.”

There are perhaps good reasons for the turn toward a more personality-driven and media-oriented presidency at the end of the 20th century. Still, a few decades earlier, Bush’s leadership style might have seemed less of a liability.

Pop cultural portrayals of Bush showed him as the opposite of a magnanimous statesman — instead they showed him as kind of small, playing on the quality he himself acknowledged: lack of the “vision thing.” The impression that he didn’t relate to people’s problems or daily lives has stuck, as have phrases that sounded good but never quite acquired deep and agreed-upon significance, like a “thousand points of light” or a “kinder, gentler America.” (The FiveThirtyEight podcast has a good overview of some of these things, including the misconception about Bush and the grocery scanner.)

This brings us to the second point: Bush was the last president to win a “third term” for his party. The 1988 election made Bush the first sitting vice president since Martin Van Buren to be elected to the presidency. The “kinder, gentler” line came as Bush was navigating the very beginning of this new phase, as he accepted the Republican nomination at the 1988 convention.

Presidents in this position — what Donald Zinman calls the “heir apparent” presidency and Stephen Skowronek calls “articulation” — have to differentiate themselves without rejecting their predecessors outright. This situation, too, proved to be especially challenging for a late-20th-century president. As Skowronek writes of Bush, “in the more party-centered politics of the 19th and early 20th centuries, orthodox innovators were better able to submerge their own identities in the collective identities of the political organizations they presumed to represent. Not so today.”

Bush’s extension of Reagan’s presidency could only go so far; the tax issue, of course, compromised his credibility with movement conservatives, and Pat Buchanan took up the mantle of cultural conservatism. It’s not just that kinder and gentler seems at odds with our current politics. It was a distinct alternative even then — one that lacked the clarity and force of other appeals.

In other words, the qualities that inform the warmest pieces about Bush as a post-presidential figure, especially those after his death, were also the ones that made his style incompatible with the late-20th-century presidency. There are two important implications here, ones that take us beyond simply using the late Bush to frame criticisms of Trump and the current GOP.

First, the existing definitions of bipartisan leadership, civility, and statesmanship are far too forgiving of racism, homophobia, and other forms of marginalization. What it means to represent the whole nation is shifting, in a way that is likely to make such representation an elusive goal for some time to come.

The second implication is that the country probably needs to take a look at what we actually want in a president and what we say we want. Some of the problem is that when people say they want compromise, what they really want is the other side to compromise.

But in other ways, the emphasis on a presidential politics that rewards rallies, tweets, and highly personalized appeals — one that is increasingly participatory and open — is exactly the kind that crowds out quieter, gentler candidates and removes the incentives for civility and rhetorical restraint.

Perhaps we should consider why these qualities dominate headlines, but a president who possesses them, in myth or reality, is worth more dead than alive.