Thursday, December 05, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Forty-One, There Was Competence But Not Confidence

"You gotta dance with who brung ya" - one of Molly Ivins' favorite sayings.

In the first election I ever cast a vote, it was for George H. W. Bush.  For a couple of reasons.  First, I grew up in an old-school Republican house (so old-school my dad still doesn't think Nixon did anything wrong).  Second, I came of age during the Reagan years, and as such had a hazy, complacent view of the political arena despite my years reading Doonesbury and sympathizing with the plight of the proletariat.  Third, seriously Dems?  Dukakis was the best you could do?!  Tsk...

Looking back, I grew into a kind of bemused awareness - this was in college - that while Bush was a competent enough political operative, there was a kind of distance to him, a disconnect that separated him from the immediacies of day-to-day living in America to the high-ended objectives of his administration with regards to economic and international issues.

I couldn't put a label on it then, other than noting that by 1992 during a hard jobless recession that had a direct affect on me - graduating with a bachelors and no job prospects lined up - that President Bush didn't seem focused on fixing the economy that would mean job opportunities for meself and others.  Hindsight can give me now a better understanding.

In hindsight: What happened was that Bush the Elder (as I've taken to calling him) had come to the Presidency as the Heir to Reagan and was stuck dancing to the agenda of a Passive-Positive administration that left him incapable of fulfilling his own more Active instincts.

He had taken on the mantle of a social conservative agenda that he himself wasn't too comfortable with: when you look back, you'll see Bush trying to take a moderate stance on abortion (for cases of rape, incest, and health of the mother) that was counter to the hardline pro-fetus stance (no exemptions, never, and no contraception either, you sluts and whoremongers).

Bush had taken on an economic conservative agenda of mass deregulation and massive tax cuts ("Read My Lips, No New Taxes"), when during his administration he made a bipartisan deal with Congress that included tax increases.

Bush pursued an international relations agenda that relied heavily on diplomacy and personal communication that would have impressed Nixon, with an emphasis on increasing trade to open global markets like never before... but angered up an increasingly isolationist, America-First right wing that abhorred deals like NAFTA and sought U.S. hegemony in the wake of the collapsing Communist opposition.

Things I think Americans take for granted even today, was how Bush was able to build on the trust Reagan engendered with the Soviet Union to further improve international relations.  On the one hand, it proved helpful to keep the USSR on the sidelines when one of their client states - Iraq - went rogue, invading Kuwait, drawing Bush in with a truly international coalition to free Kuwait and weaken (but not topple, which would have busted the coalition) Iraq.  While the neocons of today looked back and considered it a failure that we didn't invade Iraq then and overthrow Saddam, hindsight proved that an occupation would have driven away our allies, depleted our resources fighting an unending insurgency, and given neighboring Iran the opportunity to sway the large Shia Iraqi population to their influence.

Bush, remembered, presided over one of the more peaceful political overthrows our planet's ever seen (with the sad exception of at the time Romania) when the Soviet Union, unable to maintain any economic or military control of Eastern Europe, allowed their satellite allies freedom to self-determine their rules.  The summer and autumn of 1989 witnessed nations like Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and finally East Germany bring an end to one-party rule, open borders, and basically celebrated like free drunken hippies.

I will never forget, sitting at the apartment at Gainesville the whole night of Nov. 9th, watching just hour after hour of people dancing atop the Berlin Wall on the television, tearing at the graffiti-ed concrete with pickaxes and shovels, wanting oh so much to hop onto a plane and just fly out there to join in, although knowing that 1) I had no passport and 2) by the time I got there the party would be over kinda kept me planted in the sofa.  Bush's diplomatic efforts, tied in with political leaders like Gorbachev who sought peaceful reforms, made a lot of that happen.

Part of me wonders to this day if Bush had stayed in office for a second term, if the collapse of Yugoslavia into Balkanized factions driven to civil war would have been curtailed or controlled to a more peaceful ending...

Pity of it was, by 1992 none of that mattered: what mattered was a broken economy that needed an infusion of government investment to boost jobs and wages.  And Bush, sad to say, found himself stuck in a one-note conservative platform ("cut taxes, cut regs") because those were the Republicans that brought him to the Big Dance.

It didn't help that Bush the Elder faced one of the more peculiar third-party attempts in the nation's history: a disgruntled business executive, Ross Perot, decided to muddle into politics on a platform of trade protectionism, balanced budgets, and an idea of "direct democracy" allowing direct input of the electorate through the burgeoning Internet.  Part vanity project, part serious reform movement, Perot became a banner to rally among the far right and/or centrist voting base, which cut more into Bush's political support than the Democratic challenger's.

Bush's final problem was simply an inability to present himself in as confident a manner as possible.  Part of that image had come from his seeming acquiescence to the Vice Presidency under Reagan - at a time when those in the know believed Bush's political views could and did differ from Reagan's - and part of it had come from an increasing vibe of disconnect during his own Presidential tenure.  While he showed confidence in 1988 campaigning as the successor to a popular Reagan, by 1992 he could no longer campaign like that: he had to campaign on his own successes.   Because his domestic success - passing a bipartisan, tax-increased budget - was in opposition to his party's platform, he couldn't.  He had to ignore what he did and campaign on what was expected of him by the base.

As an anecdote, during that tenure Saturday Night Live was at its apex of political satire and commentary (seriously, the 1992 political skits should be bottled and preserved for future generations).  Dana Carvey, doing about as pitch perfect a Bush impersonation (and even a Perot impersonation) ever seen, slowly depicted week by week a desperate, almost pleading Bush trying to figure out what to do to please people (holding up a sign "Message: You're Pissed" at one point).  It's as apt a description of how Bush struggled towards his loss in November to Bill Clinton.

All this talk about Bush the Elder and little yet about his Character.  Mostly because I want to note something else: this is as far into the Presidential Character as Prof. James David Barber took his 4th edition of his textbook.  Bill Clinton will be the second jumping off point into the Unknown where I have to make my own interpretation.  As for Bush, lemme dig up a quote or two on him:

By the summer of that election year, asked "What about George Bush?" I was puzzled that "the basic question about Bush, is not character, but world view.  What is his vision?  What is his direction?"... (p.457)
(from Barber's New York Times 1989 article) ...Those who think he will be simply a steady, middle-of-the-road chairman of the White House team might well be wrong.  There are signs that this Presidency could be far more innovative - for better or for worse - than the last one...  Mr. Bush wants a mission.  It is important that he likes normal, ordinary politics and that he invests much energy in that work.  His character is Active-Positive, a pattern that means he is ready to learn, to change, to develop in office, as distinct from the fixated types, such as Nixon or Johnson... (p.458-9)

That in hindsight was a common part of Bush's style: a negotiator type, someone capable of dealing and Adapting as the circumstances required.

Problem was, the Republican Party that brought him to the dance didn't like changing their tunes.  And Bush didn't have enough confidence to make the Party see that the dance style had changed from Charleston to Rave.

Next Up: There was this article about The Future Imperative relating to this guy.  I gotta go find it.

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