On the morning when the world discovered President Bush had passed away, I received an email from an old friend who I fought many political battles alongside. He informed me that the death of the president had stirred up dreams and remembrances. He asked if I recalled how great the 1988 campaign was, and how equally bad 1992 was. I had remembered it the same.
There have been countless articles and eulogies given for President Bush. Many of these rightly list off the numerous domestic and foreign policy accomplishments of the president who justly deserves to be considered the most qualified person for the Oval office since James Monroe.
Two items are often omitted from these acts of homage.
The first is that although many list his foreign policy achievements, they forget that at the grand strategic level Bush becomes the first president to deal with and manage the United States as the sole superpower. When the history of American grand strategy is written, it will need to start its chapter on the Pax Americana with George Herbert Walker Bush. This is greater than the singular parts of American foreign policy, even the Gulf War. In fact, you can’t have the successful transition of the USSR to Russia, the capture of Manuel Noriega, or the defeat of Saddam Hussein without Bush being first at the helm of the most powerful country to ever appear on the planet.
The second omission is the atmosphere of the 1988 campaign which made him president.
The 1988 presidential campaign was the first campaign where I, as a university student, held an executive position in Wisconsin. I was able to experience life as an “advance man” in addition to coordinating volunteers, phone banks, yard signs, and leaflet drops. This was still the golden age of retail politics before the internet age and the dubious and dark promises of social media. You either had a ground game, or you did not even bother.
My first encounter with the future president was at the Sheraton Hotel where I had to briefly act as a go-between from a Bush-adoring fan base to the Secret Service. They were naturally more nervous being in Madison, Wisconsin, which according to urban legend had an unofficial competition with San Francisco for the number of death threats against prominent politicians. President Bush was everything that many have recounted: generous, affable, awkward, and above all gentlemanly. Although Dukakis would carry the state 51 percent to 47 percent, this loss was tempered by both the popular vote and Electoral College landslide for President Bush nationally. Those of us in the heartland knew we had given it our all, and the right man won in the end.
The strangest aspect of the campaign, and one that enraged those of us on the team, more than the man himself, was the attacks by a minority of Republicans and many Democrats that Bush was “a wimp.” It was shocking, insulting, and appalling for two fundamental reasons. First, many of those accusing him of being said “wimp” had done nothing courageous or brave or sacrificial in their own lives. Second, was how far off the mark it was from the reality of the former young navy pilot, and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism. However, similar to Bob Dole and John McCain, Bush refused to exploit his wartime heroics, much to the consternation of the various campaign staffs. I remember phone banks where we would sometimes have the “wimp” or “silver spoon” factor thrown in our faces. The media de jour, the proto-fake-news media, had embellished both. As the campaign went on, it was clear that the more a voter knew about George Bush, the more that voter liked him, and better yet, respected him. Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson stated in his memoir that Bush had a common touch, and had once told him to, “Never forget where you came from, Tommy.” Bush never forgot that where he came from was from a family devoted to service above self.
Sometimes Bush was accused of being a Patrician, but this was a strength, not a curse. The patrician class was what made Rome a Republic and ensured Rome’s greatest traditions and laws. If that is what the accusers were getting at, it was a losing battle.
Perhaps his real strength, which was somewhat of a curse when faced with a biased media was that he was not a politician. He was a statesman.