George H.W. Bush's legacy: A prudent president at ease on choppy seas of foreign policy

Presidents George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev on July 31, 1991, in Moscow.

When George H.W. Bush asked me, on a beautiful spring morning in 2011, if I’d like to go out on his boat with him that afternoon, I swallowed hard before answering. He may have been, in Jon Meacham’s wonderful phrasing, the “last gentleman,” but he also had a mischievous streak. I knew from the dozens of oral histories I had recorded with his White House staff that he loved to lure unsuspecting victims out on his cigarette boat for white-knuckle tours of the Maine shoreline.

Yet I quickly heard myself replying, “Of course!”, notwithstanding an effusive history of seasickness. No self-respecting scholar could turn down such an idiosyncratic presidential hazing.

Alas, as I passed the hours that day interviewing his chief of staff, I noticed the skies darkening. Sure enough, a phone call arrived informing me that the weather wouldn’t permit our excursion. My stomach quickly settled, but the disappointment of missing out on that adventure has never left me.

Bush brought audacity to the White House

Comic Dana Carvey built a career by lampooning Bush’s “wouldn’t be prudent.” But there was far more to George Bush than starched prudence.

Here, after all, was a man who became one of the youngest fighter pilots in the Navy, shot down over the Pacific in World War II; a man who, like the settlers of the American West, lit out for the territories to build a life in rural Texas worlds away from the comforts of Greenwich, Connecticut; and, yes, a man who bounded out of airplanes and rocketed gleefully over the waves of the North Atlantic long after most people his age were rolling golf carts between what they call “hazards.”

Bush brought a similar, if often forgotten, capacity for audaciousness to the Oval Office. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Bush quickly went public with an unqualified presidential declaration: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” The president’s absolutist position was well in advance of his National Security Council’s deliberations, leaving its members scratching their heads over how to execute it. 

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Bush similarly pushed his staff, over the firm objections of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, to secure legislative authorization for the use of military force. This was a grand dare. He wanted Congress — both chambers controlled then by Democrats — on the record supporting his decision, which would limit their room to carp when things got tough. Those close to him felt certain that had Congress refused, Bush would have inserted U.S. troops on his own authority. Perhaps sensing this inevitability, Congress consented.

Still — notwithstanding Carvey’s parody — prudence also served George Bush, and the nation, well.

After weeks of bombing Iraqi targets, U.S. and allied forces cleared Kuwait of the invading troops in only 100 hours. Then they stopped at the border. Critics attacked the president for leaving Saddam in power. Bush responded that the international coalition liberating Kuwait — and which paid for nearly all of it — would fall apart if the United States decided to go further. Moreover, Bush and his team were deeply concerned about what would happen if they invaded and subsequently owned Iraq — worries that were amply confirmed 12 years later when another President Bush decided to take just that precipitous step.

George H.W. Bush's prudence shown here, too

George Bush’s prudence also mattered on domestic policy. In the fall of 1990, the president’s economic team entered into an excruciating set of budget negotiations with congressional Democrats. An agreement was hammered out at Andrews Air Force Base, which ultimately included tax increases to deal with a growing deficit.

Congressman Newt Gingrich led a rebellion among House Republicans, skewering Bush for reneging on the signature promise of the 1988 campaign: “Read my lips: No new taxes!” Bush had little political room for maneuver. He was convinced, however, that the nation would benefit from the deal — and so he signed it.

He was proved right. Contrary to dire predictions by Gingrich and the other tax fundamentalists, a slow economy began to turn around by 1992, although too late to help Bush with his re-election bid. The spending provisions Bush got in exchange for new taxes also paid off, in part by erecting a protective wall around defense appropriations. Having ended the Cold War successfully, Bush was intent on preserving U.S. commitments abroad.

Finally, the Andrews package was a crucial first step toward a rare balanced federal budget, realized under President Bill Clinton by the end of that decade.

Because George Bush was refused a second term by American voters, any re-evaluation of his presidency by historians will always have a low ceiling. But the tumultuous political history of this nation since he left office has only accentuated for us the virtues of a president who was bold and prudent in using the nation’s military might, and one who accepted the political heat for dealing seriously with an imbalance between the nation’s taxes and spending. That’s a legacy worth remembering.

Less than a month after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Bush arranged for a meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev — on ships off the coast of Malta. Howling winds and pitching seas made transport between the USS Belknap and the Maxim Gorky so treacherous that several meetings were cancelled. A Navy frogman darkly reassured one White House staffer: Don’t worry. If you fall in, at least we’ll recover your body quickly. Another aide later recalled of what became known as the Seasick Summit: It was a real mess, (but) George Bush thought it was fantastic.

This was a president unusually at ease on choppy waters.  

Russell Riley, co-chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program, is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on elite oral history interviewing and the contemporary presidency.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George H.W. Bush's legacy: A prudent president at ease on choppy seas of foreign policy