Perspectives

American Experience: George HW Bush


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Airs Thursday, August 18 at 8 p.m. 

When George H.W. Bush left the Oval Office in 1992, rejected after one tumultuous presidential term, his 30-year career in public service came to an abrupt and unexpected end. Despite soaring approval ratings following military victory in the Persian Gulf, his years as president after the war were marked by almost unrelieved decline. A sluggish economy and an earlier decision to raise taxes, despite an explicit campaign oath, led to his defeat. By the end of his term, many observers dismissed him as an artifact of an irrelevant Cold War past.

GeorgeHW1PBS’ AMERICAN EXPERIENCE premieres the first in-depth assessment of the 41st president of the United States, drawing upon new scholarship and unparalleled access to figures in Bush’s private and public life. “George H.W. Bush, from Emmy Award-winning producer Austin Hoyt (“Reagan,” “Eisenhower,” “Victory in the Pacific”), reveals Bush as a pivotal player during a critical moment in American and world history and in a powerful political dynasty. Bush’s personal letters and interviews with his closest advisors and prominent critics inform the film, which features interviews with First Lady Barbara Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev and others.

 

“George H.W. Bush” tells the story of a man born to both economic and political privilege and tutored in modesty, a man who enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday and became a hero in World War II. It recounts Bush’s post-war time at Yale University, where he excelled in athletics, and his marriage to Barbara Pierce. It tells of his adventurous days as a Texas oil wildcatter, the tragic loss of a daughter to leukemia and his entry into Republican politics at a time of roiling change.

“People make the argument that Ronald Reagan created Bush. That’s baloney,” argues presidential historian Timothy Naftali. “The notion of economic prosperity, of constant economic growth, of peace abroad, all of these ideas that are associated with Reagan’s legacy would have been impossible without George Bush.”

In 1962, George Bush was asked to run for chairman of Houston’s Harris County Republican Party in an effort to keep the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society from gaining control over the party. After he won, to the dismay of traditional Republicans, Bush gave the Birchers jobs in the party. His interest was to expand a party that hardly existed in Texas. The next year he saw another opportunity to expand the party when Democratic President John F. Kennedy proposed civil rights legislation that led segregationists to abandon their party in favor of the Republicans. Bush welcomed them. “I thought it gave our party a bad name,” said Bush supporter Marjorie Arsht, “but George didn’t see a thing wrong with it.”

“Some felt he was compromising his principles by accommodating Birchers and segregationists,” says producer Hoyt, “but the result was remarkable. It led to the modern Republican Party.” The party Bush created in Houston would vote for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and thereafter for Ronald Reagan. “You could say that George Herbert Walker Bush was in on the creation, with this organization of Harris County Republicans, because that’s where it began,” says biographer Herbert Parmet. “Think of what that started.”

Bush’s upward path through the changing landscape of Texas and national politics took him to the U.S. House of Representatives, the United Nations, the Republican National Committee, the Central Intelligence Agency and — as an ambassador — to China, giving him one of the most distinguished résumés in government — and a front-row seat for the intrigue of Watergate and the management of the Cold War. Passed over for the vice-presidency by Gerald Ford, Bush would go on to serve Ronald Reagan in that role for two terms, during the heyday of the conservative ascendancy, before eventually assuming the presidency in 1988.

During the next four years, Bush’s term as president would take him from the highest approval rating ever recorded at the time to the most dramatic rejection of a sitting president in more than 80 years.

During his 1988 campaign, Bush made a promise to the American people: “read my lips — no new taxes.” With a recession looming, Bush soon came to believe he would have to renege on his pledge for the good of the nation. Inheriting a savings and loan crisis and a growing deficit from his predecessor, Bush was severely criticized when he agreed to raise taxes. “This could mean a one term presidency,” he confided to his diary, “but it’s that important for the country.”

“How do you weigh, in the scales of history, his performance?” asks historian Richard Norton Smith in the film. “The fact is that in a rather craven way, Bush did what his political advisors said was necessary to win; but, once he had won, he in effect put his presidency at risk by doing what his conscience and his economic calculations told him was necessary.”

With both houses of Congress against him, Bush faced limited opportunities to affect domestic affairs, but did take pride in two key pieces of legislation: the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act. However, his most memorable accomplishments were in foreign policy, where he oversaw a period of significant world change.

President Reagan may have initiated the end of the Cold War, but it was Bush who brought it to a close without a shot being fired. “Reagan did all of the exciting, glitzy stuff,” says former Secretary of State Colin Powell in “George H.W. Bush. But it was Bush who shepherded the reunification of East and West Germany and the integration of Germany into NATO.

Despite his Cold War accomplishment, it was victory in the first Gulf War that sent George Bush’s approval rating to 89 percent, at the time, the highest ever recorded. In 1991, Bush drew upon the relationships he had built in his many years with the United Nations, in China, with the CIA and as vice president to assemble a coalition of 30 nations to oppose Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. After a ferocious air campaign, coalition troops would spend just 100 hours fighting on the ground, chasing the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in just four days. They stopped at the Iraq border; Bush would not send troops into Baghdad to topple Hussein’s regime. “We were trying to set a pattern for behavior in the post-Cold War world,” recalls Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security advisor. “If we said, ‘Okay, we’ve fulfilled the mandate, but now we want to go on and do some more,’ that’s a bad precedent to set for people relying on the United States to do what the UN mandates and not further.”

“Some people said, ‘Why didn’t you guys take care of Saddam when you had a chance? Why didn’t you go to Baghdad?’” says Bush advisor James Baker. “Nobody asks me that question anymore.”

Bush had amassed all the political capital a president could have, but as the economy continued to sink and the unemployment rate soared, he was accused of losing touch with the American people and with his party. To his detriment, he underestimated the growth of the Conservative Right, the same group that he had courted as Reagan’s heir. They would not re-elect the moderate Republican that Bush, like his father Prescott, had become. Bush ran a weak re-election campaign in 1992, paving the way for Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton to become the next president.