The Revision Thing

How good a president was George Bush? And what kind of ex has he been? In a rare interview, he and Barbara talk—humbly—about his legacy, their lives in Houston, and the new library at Texas A&M.
The Bushes flanked by saber-bearing Aggies at the dedication of the Bush School in September.
Photograph by Timothy Sanders

History will confirm that George Herbert Walker Bush was a great president.” Maybe so, but the speaker of these words at the dedication of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service on the Texas A&M University campus was not exactly an unbiased source. Only a few moments before, he had begun his remarks by addressing the former chief executive and first lady as “Mr. President, [pause] Mother …” Acknowledging the ensuing laughter, the governor of Texas confided to the audience, “It works every time.”

But George W. Bush’s prediction of how history will treat his father may not work out as well. George Bush is one of five presidents in this century to be defeated for reelection (William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter were the others), and history so far has not been kind to the losers. The younger Bush went on to lay out a compelling enough case for the elder one—“He was a great president because, first and foremost, he was a great man. … He proved that you can enter the political arena and leave with your integrity. … He showed us that public service is worthy of our best efforts, the best years of our lives”—yet one has to look no further than the approval ratings of the current occupant of the White House to know that there is more to a successful presidency than character.

Almost five years have passed since George Bush was president, enough time and distance for the debate over his role in history to begin. And so it has: This summer economist Robert Reischauer, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, credited the much-disparaged tax bill of 1990, agreed to by Bush despite his “Read my lips: no new taxes” pledge during the 1988 campaign, with helping produce the prolonged economic expansion of the Clinton years. Others have read Bush’s parachute jump last spring, at the age of 72, as an attempt to eradicate the “wimp” label that had dogged him in the latter part of his career. On November 6 the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum at A&M will be dedicated. Advance copies of the first biography of Bush that covers his presidential years, Herbert S. Parmet’s George Bush: Life of a Lone Star Yankee,  are already out. The likelihood that George W. Bush will be a candidate for president in 2000 will no doubt lead to still more scrutiny, so that the sins and triumphs of the father can be visited upon the son. All history, it is said, is contemporary history, and that is certainly the case with the presidency of George Bush.

Such weighty matters, though, were far from the minds of the thousand or so spectators at the dedication of the Bush School. Most of them were Aggies—donors, alums, administrators, and faculty—who had turned out on a sweltering September afternoon to celebrate a great moment for Texas A&M as well as for George Bush. They sat underneath two white tents on a patch of ground that had been part of an experimental hog farm before then-president Bush chose A&M as the home for his presidential library in 1991—over Yale, no less, as well as a joint bid from Rice and the University of Houston. Now three new buildings occupied the site: the home of the Bush School, a conference center, and the almost-finished library. A detachment of the Aggie band greeted visitors with “The George Bush Presidential March,” composed especially for the occasion by the director of the marching band. The presidential party arrived under a canopy of crossed sabers formed by an elite unit of the Corps of Cadets. It was an Aggie ceremony all the way, even to the point that the audience punctuated the speeches not with applause but in traditional Aggie fashion, with approving bellows of “Whoop! Whoop!”

When the governor finished his introduction (“… the best dad a man could ever have …”), the forty-first president of the United States had the chance to make his own pitch to history. But he let it pass. The omission was deliberate: An hour or so earlier he had spoken briefly at a luncheon on campus, first praising Texas A&M, then explaining that he did not think it proper for him to go around playing up his presidency. “My mother used to say, ‘Don’t be a braggadocio,’” he had said. It was vintage George Bush, the kind of remark that causes the people who admire him to admire him all the more (for not bragging), and the people who scorn him to scorn him all the more (for bragging about not bragging and for sounding like a goody-goody).

This speech would prove to be no different. “We all learn about values,” Bush told the audience at the dedication. “We talk about values. It’s been said of me that I led a life of privilege, and I don’t think it’s meant to be flattering. Well, we could take care of ourselves when we were sick, but we were rich in values. We were taught to compete with honor, to be gracious in defeat—I’ve gotten very good at it, had lots of practice—to give back something to the community. Don’t brag, tell the truth, all those things.”

The message is worthy, but the messenger is too much a part of it. The focus shifts from Bush’s values to himself. Why deny his heritage? (One of his grandfathers was the first president of the National Manufacturers Association; the other, a Wall Street investment banker, lent his name to amateur golf’s Walker Cup.) Why denigrate himself? (At lunch, he had described a 1989 commencement address he had given at A&M as “a very important speech—probably not delivered very well—setting out the foreign policy of the United States.”)

Somewhere along the line, Bush’s greatest asset, his values, became his greatest weakness. In the eyes of the Left, his desire to “give back something” was born of noblesse oblige, not empathy. In

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