The judicious statesman who won victories abroad but suffered defeat at home, whose wisdom and demeanor served America well at a critical time
George Bush was a throwback to a different era. A patrician figure not known for eloquence, Bush dismissed ideology as "the vision thing." Yet, as Timothy Naftali argues, no one of his generation was better prepared for the challenges facing the United States as the Cold War ended. Bush wisely encouraged the liberalization of the Soviet system and skillfully orchestrated the reunification of Germany. And following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he united the global community to defeat Saddam Hussein. At home, Bush reasserted fiscal discipline after the excesses of the Reagan years.
It was ultimately his political awkwardness that cost Bush a second term. His toughest decisions widened fractures in the Republican Party, and with his party divided, Bush lost his bid for reelection in 1992. In a final irony, the conservatives who scorned him would return to power eight years later, under his son and namesake, with the result that the elder George Bush would see his reputation soar.
The 41st president's political persona was the stuff of greatness, argues this entry in the American Presidents series. Historian Naftali (Khrushchev's Cold War) credits Bush less with principles than with "tendencies" toward flexibility, realism and a moderate Republican version of decency. In his foreign policy, these qualities helped him nudge communism toward a soft collapse and build an international alliance to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait; domestically they led him to a budget compromise with Democrats, in which he acquiesced to unpopular tax hikes for the good of the nation. Bush's flexibility had a dark side, the author notes, that came out in his repeated tactical embrace of racial politics, from his opposition to civil rights legislation during his 1964 Senate run to the 1988 Willie Horton ads, and in his public support for Reaganomics despite deep private misgivings. Naftali forthrightly dissects Bush's misdeeds especially his role in the Iran-Contra scandal but he's less skeptical about the substance of Bush's policies, which he pointedly contrasts with Bush Jr.'s failures; he credits Bush's wars in Panama and Kuwait with helping America "overcome the burden of Vietnam," without wondering whether this paved the way for the son's misadventure in Iraq. Naftali's is a brisk, useful, but not always penetrating overview of a pivotal presidency.