Don't count George Bush among the down-and-out ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- The sorrowful departure of former President George Bush after the swearing-in of President Clinton reminded us in a way of what Finley Peter Dunne's "Mr. Dooley" said of the vice presidency: "It isn't a crime exactly. Ye can't be sint to jail f'r it, but it's kind iv a disgrace."

The same could be said of a president defeated for re-election, or for that matter of any defeated presidential candidate. The old saying that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all does not seem to have its parallel in running for the presidency.

At the start of his inaugural address, Clinton paid the expected tip of his hat to the contributions of his predecessor. But he pointedly lumped Bush's presidency, of which he was unrelentingly critical in the late campaign, into a general reference to "his half century of service to America."

Later in the speech, the new president alluded to the work of the old in a broadly negative sense by references to the need to "reinvent America" and to an economy "weakened by business failures, stagnant wages, increasing inequality and deep divisions among our people."

As Bush listened, Clinton told the nation that under his predecessor "we have drifted, and that drifting has eroded our resources, fractured our economy and shaken our confidence." He pledged "an end to the era of deadlock and drift."

If those words sounded unkind in Republican ears they were nonetheless true, and a fair summation of why it was Clinton taking the presidential oath of office and not Bush.

Nowhere visible was the faintly lopsided grin that became a trademark of the Bush years, at least among the reporters who chronicled his triumphs and his tribulations through his long Washington public career. The man relished being president, and if going to Houston was not an exile to Elba, it was an odyssey filled with regret and a sense of loss.

Bush no doubt will now experience some of the withdrawal pains that recently rejected presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter endured after their defeats at the polls. More often than not, their achievements were overshadowed in public memory by their failures, at least in the immediate years after their departure from the White House.

Ford salved his wounds in the beneficence of corporate boardrooms and generous paychecks in return for lending his name to several corporate mastheads. His reputation accordingly has not been enhanced in the public eye since he left the White House.

Carter, on the other hand, healed himself by plunging into low-profile neighborhood good works and high-profile leadership in the human rights field. Choosing that course, rather than concentrating on personal gain, he has succeeded in resurrecting his reputation. Still, it is said that he is a much better former president than he was a president -- a tempered #i compliment.

Bush has said he too intends to devote his time to helping others, but it is hard to see him, hammer and nails in hand, helping to build homes for the homeless, as Carter routinely does. There are other useful forms of public service, however, and Bush may find them.

In time, Carter's foreign-policy leadership, which failed to earn him re-election, may yet mark his presidency as a success, rather than a failure brought down by his inattention to economic decline at home. His singular foreign-policy achievement, the Camp David accords that brought peace between Israel and Egypt, likely will be prominent in the history books.

But there remains for George Bush the knowledge that his fellow citizens handed him a pink slip after four years. It is a cross to carry, but he has the advantages of a very large and loving family, and the comforts of wealth and health that have accompanied him into his most senior years.

The seemingly endless smiling images from the tennis court, golf course and waters of Kennebunkport, whether the country was in calm or in crisis, may have hurt his re-election chances. Now he can enjoy all those pleasures with political impunity. It won't be a bad life.

Campaigning in New Hampshire a year ago, Bush gushed one of his memorable, inexplicable pleas: "Don't cry for me, Argentina!" We won't.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.