Finding a morsel on lean bones of Bush presidency

DAN RODRICKS

January 19, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

As we bid farewell to George Bush and all that, it's time t pick through the carcass of this presidency and hold up a few bones.

Here's an old bone he threw out at the 1988 Republican National Convention: "A kinder, gentler nation," a great-sounding notion. Sometimes, after all, George Bush had a great notion.

Actually, when I first heard it, I sensed a dig at the Reagan presidency, though I know that's not what Bush, who served in that administration, intended. I heard Bush saying, "The Reagan years were good in a lot of ways, but bad in the way they divided people -- us against them, haves against the have-nots, etc. But we're going to turn back to a nobler, more expansive, more progressive- thinking kind of government."

Was this a more magnanimous Bush? A Bullmoose Republican Bush? Who could tell?

Problem was, this "kinder, gentler" stuff came from the George Bush of Willie Horton, the George Bush who sought the last refuge of patriotism in an I'll-do-anything campaign to beat Michael Dukakis and his card-carrying, flag-burning, pledge-of-allegiance-rejecting ilk. There was nothing kind about the 1988 campaign.

But what really gave "kinder, gentler" a hollow ring was the lack of substance. How did Bush make America a kinder, gentler place? By renewing the war on poverty? He didn't even try. By offering support for the nation's suffering cities? He snored at cities. He vetoed the family leave bill. He exploited the divisive abortion issue. He kept insisting we didn't have a recession, or that it was over.

The only one in his administration who seemed to practice what George Bush preached was housing secretary Jack Kemp, who mellowed with the experience of trying to run an agency with little additional money -- and no executive commitment -- to solve some of the nation's most wretched problems. Now, a more moderate Kemp has great appeal as a presidential candidate.

"Kinder, gentler" is a good idea. I'm glad George Bush put it into public discourse, even though his actions trivialized the phrase.

"A thousand points of light" was another Bushism. This referred to the spirit of volunteerism Bush believed, with good reason, was flourishing across the country as we somehow magically saw the evil in greed and started to reject the I-Got-Mine mind set of the heady 1980s. He was suggesting -- and it was a good suggestion -- that we stop looking to government for the answer to our social problems, and look at ourselves instead. It's xTC community that inflates the spirit of the kinder, gentler nation. Like I said, sometimes Bush had a great notion.

But, they were just words. The 41st president was away from home so long, physically and intellectually, no one believed him when he said, "Message: I care."

Bush gave us "the New World Order," and this, I believe, will be his legacy. It's the part I will tell my kids about.

As hokey or as Orwellian as it sounds, there is, indeed, a New World Order; we just haven't figured out exactly what it is. But it is something like the Somalia relief operation. It is something like the limited war against Saddam Hussein. Its definition and scope are still quite fluid, but the New World Order needs to be sustained, through the United Nations, at the insistence of Bill Clinton and his successors.

So give Bush credit for pulling the rest of the world into the act. With the Cold War behind us, global peace and humanitarianism of epidemic proportions could become realities in our kids' generation. I'm an optimist.

Bush has no one to blame for his one-term tenure but himself. How someone so long in political life could not see his popularity being stripped away by recession and a citizenry that had sobered up to hard realities is one of the great stories of political failure. No president ever fell from as lofty a place in the polls as fast as George Bush did.

Years from now, when the kids ask us about this president, what will we say?

We'll say George Bush was a guy who had a great opportunity to pull the nation together and set a course for the 21st century. He had a chance to set a fresh agenda. He had a chance to recharge and extend the great endeavors that had been started by Democrats on the home front and by Republicans abroad. He focused on the endeavors abroad, not those at home. That's why he became the former president.

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