Believe it or not, a Republican president may be benefiting from some revisionist history. Indeed, the academic literature on George Herbert Walker Bush, although brief, like his presidency, is mostly, so far, laudatory.
“That the United States avoided another great power conflict from 1945-1992 is a testament to the stewardship of Presidents from Truman through George H. W. Bush,” Berkeley law professor John Yoo writes in Crisis and Command: A History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush. “Nine American Presidents from different parties, over half a century, patiently pursued a policy that contained, and ultimately exhausted, an enemy that outmatched the United States in land power.”
“They had to follow a moderate course that sometimes required active challenges to the Soviets, at other times, restraint.” Actually, the first president to abandon containment was Jimmy Carter, who showed that he did not have “an inordinate fear of communism” by letting the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan and Nicaragua stand.
The first president to embrace the liberation, or rollback, of the Soviet Empire was Ronald Reagan, whose vice-president got to preside over its dismantling. “Bush made his more lasting, though less noticed, contribution to the national security in managing the peaceful end of the Soviet empire,” Yoo claims. “Bush successfully pressed for the reunification of Germany, the enlargement of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact nations, and the recognition of Russia and the former Soviet republics.”
“These diplomatic initiatives were conceived and executed by the executive branch.” In the footnote to this last quoted passage, Yoo reveals that “The events and Bush’s perspective are retold in George H. W. Bush & Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (1999).
Unmentioned in these, Yoo’s complete references to the 41st president, is the speech Bush gave in one of these emerging nations warning of suicidal nationalism . “Yet freedom is not the same as independence,” then-President Bush said. “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism.”
“They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” To be fair, by at least one estimate, nine of the 23 former Soviet republics have embraced the Taliban.
Nevertheless, Bush issued his warning in one of the other 14—The Ukraine. Unlike his old boss’s famous speech in Berlin a few years beforehand, Bush’s remarks didn’t tear down any walls, literal or metaphorical.
“Bush himself has said that his greatest leadership disappointment was the failure to communicate better to the public in 1992 that he had control of the domestic economy and that the nation was moving towards prosperity under his helm,” Ryan J. Barilleaux and Mark J. Rozell write in Power and Prudence: The Presidency of George H. W. Bush. “While he was in office, it was not Bush’s style to trumpet big plans or to brag about his accomplishments.”
“No president comes into office in a vacuum; nor is any chief executive given a blank check to make policy.” Barilleaux teaches at Miami University of Ohio and Rozell hangs his hat at George Mason University.
Their book was published in 2004 by Texas A & M, where the Bush presidential library is. “As a man whose approach to policy stressed prudence—a realistic assessment of possibilities—George Bush viewed his tenure in the White House as being marked by very specific circumstances relevant to shaping domestic policy,” Barilleaux and Rozell claim. “He was Ronald Reagan’s successor and he inherited a prosperous nation and faced large budget deficits.”
“His administration’s domestic policies were constructed in that context.” Thus, contextually, do the authors attempt to explain why Bush broke his “No new taxes” pledge.
“We have a tendency today to forget what the political context was like in 1989, 1990,” Bush’s deputy chief of staff Andrew Card told the authors. “The Democrats had the votes in Congress.”
“President Bush had to work with both the Democratic majority and the very frustrated congressional Republicans.” In 1991, three economists scored that fateful budget deal in a study for the minority staff of the congressional Joint Economic Committee.
“Concern about the effect of new taxes on the economy, or on the spending habits of public officials, was given short shrift by pragmatism,” they wrote. “The crowning triumph of this strategy was the 1990 budget agreement, which raised taxes $160 billion, supposedly to reduce the deficit.”
“However, the facts contained in this study and elsewhere show that Federal spending actually accelerated after the 1990 tax increases were enacted, and budget deficits have hit record levels.” In fact, they found that, “domestic discretionary spending under Congressional control has actually accelerated under the budget agreement.”
“Between fiscal 1990 and 1991, domestic discretionary spending jumped from $182.5 billion to $199.8 billion, an increase of $17.3 billion, or 9.5 percent.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.