The overlooked president

Some of this was known at the time. The elder Bush ushered in the CNN era. The challenges he faced, including the budget battle, received wall-to-wall coverage. What was underreported was the pivotal role he had played. The release of materials over the past decade—especially the oral histories done by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center—have revealed that Bush was surrounded by a team of kibitzers. They were not rivals—his was a very unified and loyal administration—but his inner circle rarely agreed. His secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, and James Baker were polar opposites on many of the foreign policy challenges he faced. Bush alone, we can now see, was the decider. Without his guidance, this administration would have been paralyzed.

Now that we understand him better, the elder Bush deserves more than to be relegated to some golden past. Some of the political nonsense we see today is the product of George H.W. Bush not getting the credit he deserved. Before the surprising ascent of Donald J. Trump, the fog machines of both political parties decided to focus on the men before and after “41.” The GOP, especially the Tea Party and other descendants of Gingrich, elevated Reagan and assigned to him the achievements of George H.W. Bush. Bush was much more than the Pope Benedict XVI to Reagan’s Pope John Paul II. Without Bush, the achievements that the Reaganites claim for themselves—the peaceful end of the Cold War and the economic prosperity of the 1990s—would not have happened. The Reagan propaganda was so strong that even Bush’s son, George W. Bush, ran and tried to govern like Reagan in what seemed to many a mistaken effort to rescue the family’s honor. In the same vein, Democrats need to keep in mind that the Clinton economic boom would have been unlikely without the fixes that the elder Bush made, at great political cost to himself, in the early years of the decade. I suspect that Clinton, who came to love and admire Bush 41, knows this, and Barack Obama, who awarded the elder Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, knows it too.