Latest title in the American Presidents Series spotlights the elder Bush’s uneven one-term presidency, riding Reagan’s coattails and navigating the “new world order.”
Son of a Republican senator from Connecticut, educated at Phillips Academy and Yale, a naval aviator during World War II, George Herbert Walker Bush forged a path unique from his father’s by moving to West Texas with wife Barbara to grow rich as an oil man. He lost Senate runs in 1964 and 1970, his mixture of social liberalism and economic conservatism doomed by compromises on key issues. Expedient and tactical, pragmatic and emotional, Bush won a congressional election in 1966 thanks to his friend James A. Baker III. Briefly considered as Nixon’s running mate, he was instead offered a job as United Nations representative, then chairman of the Republican National Committee. After a stint as UN representative to China and head of the CIA under Gerald Ford, Bush ran for president against Ronald Reagan and was again sidelined as an understudy. Vice President Bush was Reagan’s loyal soldier and crisis manager, a key participant in the controversial Iran-Contra scandal and coverup. His political adaptability was often taken as a sign of weakness. “Fighting the Wimp Factor” became his presidential campaign’s rallying cry against Bob Dole and Michael Dukakis. Cleaning up Reagan’s mess marked the beginning of his presidency, which was plagued by the budget deficit, the savings-and-loan debacle, the intransigence of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. However, the unraveling of the Soviet bloc allowed Bush moments of greatness. These did not protect him from becoming an object of public scorn and being roundly defeated in 1992 by Democrat Bill Clinton.
Naftali (Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, 2005, etc.) offers a soft-pedaling, well-paced glimpse at the career highlights of a man whose presidency still remains murky and out-of-focus.