One-term presidents rarely look impressive in the history books. That’s understandable, because “once was enough” isn’t a verdict this country’s voters deliver casually. In our time, especially, the four-and-out club has stayed awfully exclusive.
Paradoxically or not, however, the losers—and this does include Ford—end up as the ex-presidents we feel the most affection for. They’re like three-legged dogs who wound up being adopted by the family whose car ran them over. Once Carter was out of office, he turned out to be more gifted at the job of being a former president than he’d ever been as a president. It was as if he’d finally been set free to teach Sunday school seven days a week.
Bush 41, on the other hand, endeared himself by yielding to his innate goofiness: jumping out of airplanes to celebrate milestone birthdays, doting on being BFFs with the man who’d defeated him (Bushes understand clubbiness) once Bill Clinton was out of the White House, and—perhaps less endearingly—turning into a lecherous old coot whenever a pinchable derriere was within reach of his wheelchair. He also had the peculiar advantage of looking better in hindsight once his own son was in the Oval Office, because 41’s famous prudence seemed a lot less ridiculous once we’d gotten an dose of Dubya’s cowboy recklessness.
In almost every other way, however, Bush senior represented a mild ending, not a grim new beginning.
Aside from launching the Gulf War, along with its bantamweight evil twin—the invasion of Panama that ousted longtime CIA asset Manuel Noriega once he got too big for his britches—George H.W. Bush may be the last chief executive to have seen his duties as primarily custodial. Famously indifferent to what he scornfully called “the vision thing,” he offered no sweeping policy initiatives and advocated for no inspirational goals, with the feeble exception of his call for “a kinder, gentler America” in his 1988 acceptance speech at the Republican convention. (That worked out well.)
Even so, it’s arguable that he had the right skill set for the times. He had very little to do with bringing about the end of the Cold War; that had been Ronald Reagan’s and, above all, Mikhail Gorbachev’s handiwork, with help from millions of Eastern Europeans fed up with being satellite states. But he wasn’t dumb about how to handle the aftermath. Triumphalist boasting about bringing the Soviet Union to heel would have wrecked opportunities for future amicability, and he took care to avoid it.
He represented the tail end of a once formidable patrician tradition in American politics, even as he also incarnated its feckless slide into mediocrity.
Bush the candidate’s legacy is much uglier, and it’s also proven —no surprise here—more lasting. Ignoring his own “kinder, gentler America” nonsense, he defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988 by demonizing liberalism in general and flagrantly appealing to white voters’ racism in particular. The “Willie Horton” ads turned a hulking African American killer who’d gone on a crime spree during a prison furlough into the emblem of Dukakis’s governorship of Massachusetts, and Bush never expressed any regret about that—unlike, on his deathbed, campaign mastermind Lee Atwater, who’d vowed at the time to “make Horton [Dukakis’s] running mate” and rightly rued his own “naked cruelty.” Meanwhile, Bush himself spent the fall maligning Dukakis’s patriotism, babbling about the Pledge of Allegiance, and treating his opponent’s ACLU membership as a badge of shame. Refined by Newt Gingrich, retooled by Fox News, and perfected by Donald Trump, the GOP ploy of portraying Democrats as fundamentally un-American began here.
In almost every other way, however, Bush senior represented a mild ending, not a grim new beginning. He was the last relatively moderate, secular Republican to win the White House before the party’s right-wing evangelical base, which had never liked or trusted him—born-again Dubya was far more convincing at talking their lingo—grew too assertive to settle for table scraps anymore. He represented the tail end of a once formidable patrician tradition in American politics, even as he also incarnated its feckless slide into mediocrity. More movingly, he was the last veteran of World War II to occupy the Oval Office. We shouldn’t forget that his first parachute jump was an unwilling one after his plane was shot down over the Pacific in 1944.
He was also the last candidate for president who ever got away with saying “Just a splash” when he was offered a coffee refill at McDonald’s on the campaign trail. He was the first one to win office despite what Newsweek called “The Wimp Factor.” He was the first and, let’s hope, only president to ever vomit into a foreign leader’s lap at a state dinner. (Japan’s prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, got the honor.) Love him or hate him, he was the last of the preppies, and there can’t help but be a certain poignancy in that.