41

On this national day of mourning and in memory of the 41st President of the United States of America, here is the Philip Zelikow’s Foreword from 41: Inside the Presidency of George H. W. Bush, edited by Michael Nelson and Barbara A. Perry.

The popular image of George H. W. Bush, which has recently been reinforced by an HBO documentary produced by Jerry Weintraub and other Bush friends, is the portrait of an accomplished, good-natured, self-deprecating gentleman and sportsman. All this is true enough. Indeed, Bush seems highly qualified to be the president of any community’s Rotary Club.

This does leave us, however, with a few puzzles.

First, why was this amiable fellow both so successful and so unsuccessful as a politician? It is interesting that Bush’s abilities in winning people over at the personal level, which was abundantly in evidence in foreign capitals and on Capitol Hill, translated so poorly into abilities at the level of mass retail politics.

Perhaps he was not really all that outstandingly successful, except in the qualities that recommended him to Ronald Reagan in 1980 as an appropriate vice president. And then that pairing led to other things. The oral histories compiled by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the perceptive essays in this volume that use them provide insightful conjectures. They portray Bush as a politician who was really, in some sense, outside of his time, an anachronism within his party and perhaps even in the world of American politics.

Second, although Bush practically had the word “prudent” tattooed to his forehead—in purple letters, not scarlet—there is little evidence that he was an especially analytical person in any formal sense of the term. He did read and listen. But his temperament was restless, constantly looking for something to do. He was a deeply emotional person—instinctive, intuitive in his reactions to people and situations. I believe one source of his characteristic inability to express himself very well in public settings is that a long-ingrained filter was in place habitually blocking the facile expression of these impulses. My hypothesis is of a person who forced himself, had seemingly always had to force himself, to pause and reflect. He would then make some big calls, yet do so in a way that seemed so diffident and unhistrionic that their importance might pass without notice.

So, third, we have the public image of Bush the cautious, Bush the prudent, Bush the risk averse. Against that we have the reality of some of the most radical moves any president has overseen in modern times. Part of this is just the empowerment of skillful subordinates in a true administration team—Scowcroft, Baker, Zoellick, the Nick Brady of the important “Brady plan,” Cheney, Sununu, Darman, and others. But some of the biggest calls were very much Bush’s own.

Contrary to much of the historiography, the end of the Cold War featured some breathtaking gambles. Bush and most (not all) of his advisors threw aside initial hesitations about how to make sense of the changes about two months into the new administration, toward the end of March 1989. I was a direct witness to this. Bush and his team (notably Baker and Scowcroft) called for a rollback of Soviet power—eventually to extend to a rollback to borders the Russian empire had not known since the eighteenth century. Throughout human history changes on this scale have happened only as the corollary of bloodily catastrophic war.

Bush unequivocally gambled on an all-out push for German unification and did so publicly—much noticed among world leaders—weeks before the Berlin Wall came down. He presided over the largest change in the U.S. force posture in Europe since the 1950s and the most ambitious nuclear and conventional arms control agreements ever signed before or since. If his agenda is compared to what foreign leaders privately wanted or expected or what public pundits such as Henry Kissinger and George Kennan were advocating in leading newspapers at the time, Bush’s agenda was indeed extreme.

In the immediate aftermath of Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, who in America envisioned or called for the dispatch of 500,000 American soldiers to the sands of Saudi Arabia who were prepared to reverse it? And then seek to do so with full UN support, seizing on the end of the Cold War as its embers were still glowing to revive for the first time since 1945 the long-latent dream of Franklin Roosevelt to make the UN Security Council a body of high-minded “policemen”(FDR’s term)?

All this was afire with political controversy (the resolution authorizing the use of force passed the Senate by only five votes; his son’s 2002 Iraq vote would pass by fifty). That was the context in which, barely a week before the 1990 midterm elections, Bush decided to double the U.S. troop commitment, including reserve call-ups that could touch every American community. The war plan of the theater commander was junked, and Joint Staff stepped in to help craft a far bolder plan, backed by a blank check of presidential commitment. Bob Gates’s recollection of the October 30, 1990, meeting, preserved in his oral history interview, still echoes astonishment even twenty years later. Bush knew what he was doing. A week earlier, Baker and Colin Powell had privately conferred about where all this was going. Both men were uneasy, with Powell clearly wondering whether Bush was really “all in” and then being assured that he was. I believe from that day—October 30—forward, Colin Powell was George H. W. Bush’s man, proud to count himself among a band of brothers.

However one characterizes all this, “prudent” does not do the job. The pictures of the frenetic golfer or fisherman, the self-deprecating, genial but rather hapless toastmaster, do not do the job. And future scholars will want to keep in mind that almost all of the American academic commentators who wrote about George H. W. Bush in the twentieth century can be presumed to have voted against him, based on what they thought they knew at the time.

Nor do such depictions do the job for the 1990 budget agreement, which turned out to be the first and most important of three budget deals struck between 1990 and 1996 that produced a balanced budget by the end of the decade for the first time since the Nixon administration. This book amply describes what this cost Bush. That this came as the country was quietly staggering from an enormous, dimly understood American financial crisis (the so-called savings and loan crisis that began toward the end of the Reagan administration) makes the issue more interesting still. That the budget deficit became the signature issue for the strange and ultimately quite significant third-party candidacy of that eccentric, vengeful snake-oil salesman Ross Perot, only redoubles the historical irony.

If puzzles like these pique your curiosity, make you want to take another look at this rather peculiar one-term president, read on. And then read the oral histories, which are available at The Miller Center. In weighing the value of these oral histories, consider that there are only two kinds of primary sources about the past. There are the material remnants of what happened—documents, coins, statues. Then there are the preserved recollections of the human observers. Some of these recollections take the form of formal memoirs.

From the time it was founded in the mid-1970s, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center placed the study of the American presidency close to the center of its work. From the point of view of basic research into primary evidence, the most obvious way to supplement the work of the National Archives and Records Administration was to organize good oral history projects to set down the recollections of participants before they passed on. A modest effort of this kind was undertaken for the Ford presidency; a better one (helped by James Sterling Young’s involvement) was conducted for the Carter administration. Then Young went on to other work at Virginia and, though director Kenneth Thompson did his best, these efforts went back to a relatively modest scale. This was a pity, because the quality of oral history work being conducted by the presidential libraries had always been up and down, mostly down, and candor was constrained by the fact that the libraries, with their institutional bias toward the presidents whose legacies they embodied, directly ran the projects.

One of my first tasks when taking over the directorship of the Miller Center in 1998 was to revive the oral history work and raise its standards. The goal was to provide as strong a complement to the documentary and memoir record as funds would allow, institutionalizing these practices for every presidency possible. Jim Young came back on board to help; he and I later recruited the current director, Russell Riley, whom we both knew to have been one of Dick Neustadt’s finest students. The oral history work was complemented by another primary research effort, the careful annotated transcription of the presidential meeting and telephone recordings secretly compiled in several presidencies, above all between 1962 and 1973. These two research projects seemed to be the most important primary research projects possible, beyond the compilation of papers and other artifacts long being carried out by the National Archives.

The launching pad for the renewed oral history effort was the presidency of George H. W. Bush. His immediate successor, Clinton, was then still in office. I had served in Bush’s administration in a rather junior position, as a career diplomat detailed to his National Security Council staff, and knew some of the principal figures. The Bush oral history project became a template for those to follow. The Miller Center has now forged partnerships to conduct such projects for the administrations of Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush as well. One of our alumni, Tim Naftali, was also able to use some of this experience to conduct a too-long-delayed and quite good oral history project for the Nixon administration when Naftali became the National Archives’ director of the Nixon Library.

The Bush precedent involved financial support from Bush’s presidential library foundation. They agreed to be fenced off from the research process itself. The Miller Center chose the interviewers, shaped the agenda, conducted the interviews, and then kept the results as private (including from the Bush library foundation) as the respondents wished. That kind of partnership would not have been easy for every presidential library foundation to swallow. And this one had some second thoughts about it, even third thoughts.

From a research point of view, the partnership with the Bush library foundation was fortunate. It set the right kind of precedent for scholarly integrity. That is a credit to Bush himself and the tone he set for some of his former aides who shared these instincts.

It was not as hard for them to set such a standard as it might have been for some other presidents and their aides. They had been involved in a presidency that, though it failed of reelection, had been practically unblemished by scandal and had produced notable policy successes—some of which were known and some of which (they thought) were not adequately known. So these men and women were not as insecure about what scholars would find as some other sets of “formers” might have been. Hence the good precedent.

This volume reflects an initial reappraisal by a superb group of scholars armed with this material along with additional material generated at a fall 2011 symposium that brought them together with Bush administration alumni at the Miller Center. I believe other scholars who take their time with this volume and the underlying material will find both to be quite important in revising our understanding of this very important, misunderstood, and, as discussed above, somewhat peculiar president.

 

41