It’s true that George H.W. Bush was the last president from The Greatest Generation. This week, commentators have pointed out that when Bill Clinton defeated Bush for a second term, Clinton’s youth was a big plus.
The torch was again passed to a new generation.
Dig a little deeper and a few more truths become apparent. They are, or should be, troubling. 1. George H.W. was the last person with a solid record of national service to serve as president. 2. He was the last president to serve before campaigning became more science and less art.
As for the resume, there’s no need to rehash the life and accomplishments of America’s 41st president, who died Saturday at the respectable age of 94. Fighter pilot during the worst of World War II in the Pacific. Accomplished Ivy League scholar. Successful in what his fellow Texans call the “oil binness,” which gave rise to several ties in Mississippi. Effective legislator. Skilled and skeptical diplomat. Loyal vice president and family man. Pragmatic internationalist. Kind and accommodating until he needed to be stern or decisive.
George H.W. Bush wasn’t an orator. He didn’t swagger. While cameras and microphones were not weapons in his arsenal, reason and compassion were.
Many mocked his “Thousand Points of Light” and the foundation that still recognizes individual and small group private sector difference-makers. But it was important to him as a small-government conservative to remind people that government and its myriad programs are not keys to a happy life. If anything, he pitied those who looked to local, state or national government as efficient problem-solvers.
Even as a small-government conservative, though, he didn’t hesitate to lock in place federal standards to shield the disabled from senseless discrimination.
A smattering of state and federal laws recited protections when liberal Democrats in Congress started talking about broader regulations. Employers wailed about the cost of compliance, but Bush sent word that he would support the Democrats and he signed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. The legislation, which like all legislation has been abused at times, has two component parts. The first says that a disabled person who, with a reasonable accommodation, can do a specific job cannot be denied that job based on the disability. The second says that spaces and places open to the public must be designed and built to be accessible. A person who can walk has no problem stepping on or off a curb. The same curb could be a solid brick wall to a person in a wheelchair. An incline makes no difference to a walker, changes the world for a non-walker.
By the time Bush was seeking his second term, more sophisticated campaign methodologies were being discovered and deployed by operatives including James Carville, Paul Begala, Roger Ailes and Karl Rove. They discovered how to use focus groups to discover just the right words and phrases to push the public’s buttons.
Not being naïve here, campaigning has long been both a science and an art and has always included obvious as well as sneaky methodologies. It’s just that the computer age ushered in more data, better methods of analysis, better predictive modeling. Too, winning by any means necessary became the standard.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” wasn’t adopted by the Clinton campaign on a hunch it might work. The best evidence showed it was the main vulnerability of the incumbent, who two years before leaving office had an 89 percent approval rating, one of the highest of any president ever.
Objectively, no president since Bush 41 has had his depth.
• Bill Clinton is a brilliant charismatic who had not made much difference in a state that, except for Mississippi, would be last or almost last in everything.
• George W. Bush was elected based on Clinton fatigue and name recognition and re-elected as a war president.
• Barack Obama is plenty smart, but was a community organizer who put his faith in consensus-building in a nation not interested in consensus. He was a conciliator in world affairs, creating the perception of American weakness.
• Donald Trump. If he has any focus other than self-adulation, we’ve yet to see it.
It’s a serious matter. We’ve seen lots of elections for the past 20 years that having good researchers develop talking points and sticking to those points matters most. We’ve seen winning at any cost become all that matters.
George H.W. Bush inherited a healthy nation and had the experience and wisdom to focus objectively on making it — and the world — better.
No one since has filled his shoes.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.