It’s hard to tell what the reaction to the death of George H. W. Bush would have been like without the presidency of Donald Trump. The elder Bush was not a particularly beloved president in his lifetime — too moderate for the Republican Party’s increasingly dominant conservative wing, too conservative for Democrats and those further left — and yet today, he looks like a model of political and personal virtue.
His one-term presidency, which ended a quarter-century ago, now looks like part of another world. But in many ways, it was a transitional moment that helped shape our world today. And the way “Poppy” Bush handled the challenges of that moment may have been wiser than most of us realized at the time.
Bush began his political career in a Republican Party that championed fiscal conservatism, social moderation and prudent foreign policy. When he became Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980, he accepted his place in a much more aggressively libertarian, socially conservative and hawkish GOP. Yet his moderate instincts remained intact. When he accepted the presidential nomination eight years later, he spoke of building a “kinder, gentler nation” — words that irked many conservatives who saw them as a covert rebuke to Reaganism.
Bush’s handling of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, a process he inherited from Reagan, got its share of scathing criticism. A man of the status quo, he tried to keep the moribund USSR alive; his August 1991 speech in Kiev cautioned independence-minded Ukrainians against “suicidal nationalism.” In an age when Ukraine still fights Russian encroachment, the “Chicken Kiev” speech, as detractors dubbed it, has not aged well. Could an intact Soviet Union have had a more successful transition from communism? Extremely unlikely. But Bush’s prudential approach may well have cushioned the fall of the USSR and kept events from spinning into chaos. He almost certainly deserved some credit for the fact that communism in the Eastern bloc collapsed with hardly any bloodshed.
On several trips to Moscow in 1990-92, I was struck by Bush’s popularity. He lent his name to a food item: the frozen chicken leg quarters the USSR began to import from the United States under a 1990 deal, a welcome delicacy amid food shortages, were nicknamed “Bush’s legs.” Once, a little boy in Moscow interviewed on TV for a human interest story and asked what he wanted to be when he grew up replied, “President Bush.”
Bush’s cautious approach in Iraq, where he stuck faithfully to the UN mandate to stop the invasion of Kuwait without toppling the Saddam Hussein regime, looks even better in retrospect than his Russia policy — despite its moral grays, including the abandonment of dissidents who rebelled against Hussein with American encouragement.
While Bush faced justified criticism, whether on his coziness with China’s leaders after the Tiananmen Square massacre or the Iran-Contra pardons, he was also unfairly maligned. (The story of his being dazzled by a supermarket scanner, which may have cost him re-election in 1992, was almost certainly “fake news.”). Some on the left still malign him in death. An egregious piece in The Nation claims it’s an affront to celebrate Bush on World AIDS Day because of his supposed inhumanity to AIDS victims. In fact, he gave a major speech in 1990 that called for a war on AIDS — and invoked his daughter’s death of leukemia in 1953 as a model for treating the sick with compassion and “without discrimination.”
On left and right, we are very far from the kinder, gentler America Bush called for. He may not have been a charismatic visionary. But in Trump’s America, there are worse examples than Bush’s legacy of moderation and personal decency.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason.