As the days, weeks and months of the Trump presidency pass by, America becomes angrier and more divided. The nation has descended into a perpetual “us versus them” mentality, as the foundations of civic discourse (tolerance, civility, empathy) begin to tumble. I once thought that the 2016 election was the apex of the viciousness of contemporary American politics; instead, it appears as if the election was only a precursor for worse things to come.
In the wake of this decline, I think it is necessary for us to look to our nation’s history books for pathways out of the rubble. If we are to progress from the decadence of the Trump Era, we must understand how civil politics once functioned. There is, in my opinion, no better place to look than the four years of the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
Admittedly, George Bush’s ascendance to the presidency was anything but pretty. His campaign manager, the notorious Lee Atwater, was undoubtedly one of the most ruthless political operatives in the history of American politics. Atwater’s infamous Willie Horton commercial — an ad with very strong racial undertones that essentially linked blacks with violent crime — is certainly one of the darker moments of modern American presidential campaigns.
Yet, while Bush’s 1988 campaign wasn’t exactly as hopeful and optimistic as, say, Obama’s 2008 campaign, the president nevertheless was one of the most admirable and courageous leaders of his time.
For those who have ever looked at the life of George Bush the First, the evidence of his character and courage is copious. In 1944, Bush — then the youngest fighter pilot in the Navy — was blown out of his airplane after a raid in the South Pacific. Though he was stranded for hours in the middle of the ocean, Bush was eventually rescued by a submarine, and continued to serve as a fighter pilot for the remainder of the war. As a Congressman, diplomat and Vice President, Bush dutifully served his country wherever he was called. He was consistently viewed as one of the most reliable and trustworthy men in politics.
Though often forgotten, Bush’s tenure as president is quite remarkable. Perhaps the greatest emblem of his courage was his decision to raise taxes in 1990. Though he had declared in the 1988 campaign that he would not, under any circumstances, raise taxes, Bush was left with massive deficits from the Reagan years. Reagan — the champion of limited government — had actually expanded certain areas of the government (particularly the Department of Defense) to unseen levels. Combined with Reagan’s enormous tax cuts, the nation was left with some of the highest deficits in its history.
Bush understood that the mounting deficits were not only irresponsible, but that they also threatened American economic security. Thus, despite his promise not to raise taxes, Bush pushed forward and did what was necessary for the good of the country. Though he paid an enormously high price for the decision — the Clinton campaign routinely roasted the president for his tax policy — Bush made the right choice for the country.
One of the most important lasting effects of the Bush years is the president’s management of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the wake of the decline of a great power, it is often the case that the nation will lash out violently in a last attempt to regain a foothold. Bush and his foreign policy team were keenly aware of this fact, and were determined to see that the Soviet Union went out “with a whimper and not a bang.”
Under Bush’s leadership, the U.S. and its NATO allies carefully worked to manage the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Warsaw Pact, and the ultimate dissolution of the USSR. Bush was not dancing on top of the rubble of the Berlin Wall at its deconstruction, and he was not lauding his greatness in the wake of the Soviets’ demise. Bush understood that a careful and peaceful transition of power was more important that satisfying his ego (it is disappointing to note that our current president would likely not have followed the same policy).
The last triumph of the Bush years that I will mention here is the success of the first Iraq War. Unlike the war of his son, Bush 41’s Persian Gulf War was perhaps the best managed conflict in modern human history. By carefully uniting a massive global coalition, Bush was able to turn virtually the entire world against the regime of Saddam Hussein. And after a carefully planned air bombardment, the coalition’s ground forces routed the Iraqi military in an incredibly short two days.
After pushing Saddam out of Kuwait, many within Bush’s national security team (such as defense secretary Dick Cheney) wanted the President to invade Iraq. Bush refused, stating that the objective of the conflict was to free Kuwait of Hussein — not to expand America’s overseas empire. In effect, Bush eschewed the personal glory of permanently disposing Hussein, and instead committed American ground forces to a short, well-executed conflict.
Bush’s willingness to give-up personal glory and risk political catastrophe clearly shows that he was a man of incredible character — and was a man worthy to lead this nation. Though Donald Trump will never have the kind of courage that Bush 41 has, I implore President 45 to look at the example of 41. Our nation is stronger and better off because of the restraint and the responsibility of the first George Bush.
Michael Glanzel is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Cornell Shrugged appears alternate Mondays this semester.