Wicker on Bush the Elder: bland leading the bland

May 23, 2004|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

George Herbert Walker Bush, by Tom Wicker. Viking. 228 pages. $19.95.

Clare Boothe Luce once said that history remembers even the greatest presidents with one sentence. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and saved the union. Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation out of the Depression and won World War II.

So what will George Herbert Walker Bush's sentence be? In this brief biography, the veteran journalist suggests that the elder Bush's greatest accomplishment may merely have been becoming president. Once in office, Wicker suggests, Bush did little more than respond to problems as they emerged.

Bush was masterful in diplomacy but lackadaisical on domestic issues, and his background explains why. The son of a senator, with family connections on Wall Street, Bush was raised in privilege and educated in prep schools. With a lifelong capacity to make friends and keep them, he forged alliances with world leaders during his years as United States ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

These friendships served him well in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and Bush built a remarkable alliance against Saddam Hussein. After the allies ousted Iraq from Kuwait, Bush cautiously and, in Wicker's view, correctly, refused to march on Baghdad and bring down Saddam. Similarly, Bush tactfully refrained from, in his phrase, "dancing on the Berlin Wall" during the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Here, too, Wicker believes Bush's diplomatic and undramatic approach helped promote a peaceful transition from communism in Russia, the other former Soviet republics and what once were called the Soviets' satellites.

But Bush wasn't prepared to be president in a time of economic recession. He seemed to have no idea that working-class Americans were worried about vanishing jobs, stagnant wages and disappearing health coverage. Wicker tells how Bush vetoed extended unemployment insurance, marveled at the existence of supermarket scanners and looked at his watch while a woman tried to explain her economic anxieties.

So what made Bush run? Wicker ascribes Bush's sprint through four national campaigns to "a burning desire to be president of the United States." However, Wicker acknowledges that Bush wanted to serve as well as succeed. At age 17, Bush volunteered to become the youngest Navy aviator in World War II, and he kept flying missions even after his plane was shot down.

In addition to his physical courage, he also displayed political courage on occasion, supporting the Fair Housing Act of 1968 in spite of opposition in his affluent white congressional district and interrupting a Cabinet meeting in August 1974 to tell Richard Nixon that he needed to resign the presidency because of the Watergate scandal. But, mostly, Bush went along with the rightward drift in the Republican Party, from his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to his support for what he had once called "voodoo economics" once Ronald Reagan selected him as vice president.

Although he served 12 years in the nation's two highest offices, Bush left few footprints on the domestic landscape. He was so bland that many readers will fault this biography for saying so little about what shaped the younger Bush, who is the blunt-spoken believer his father never was.

David Kusnet was a speechwriter in three campaigns against George H. W. Bush, working for Bill Clinton in 1992, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Walter Mondale in 1984. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties.

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