1988 was the first presidential election I could vote in. The choice that year was Vice President George Bush vs. Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.
I didn’t really appreciate the choice. On the one hand, I had liked Bush back in 1980. He ran as a moderate Republican, the alternative to Reagan’s staunch, rock-solid conservatism, and even at the age of 12 (I turned 13 just weeks before the election) I preferred the more middle-of-the-road course. He also had, I thought, the best resume of all the candidates running — Representative, CIA Director, and UN Ambassador. I lost a smidgen of respect for him when he accepted the vice-presidential slot, as he’d been fairly critical of Reagan in the primaries, but I had to admit he was a pretty good veep. He was loyal to his president and didn’t use the bully vice-pulpit to espouse where he differed and disagreed from Reagan.
But when he ran for president in 1988, he didn’t run as the same man he was — and the same man I’d liked — back in 1980. He tried to run as “Reagan’s third term,” and he just couldn’t pull that off convincingly to me. He wasn’t Reagan and he wasn’t the Old Bush, and I couldn’t decide just how I felt about that.
When they picked their vice presidents, I was even more appalled. Dukakis tapped Lloyd Bentsen, a senator from Texas. The transparency of Dukakis’ trying to re-create the 1960 race — the Democratic Massachusetts politician tapping a Texas senator to go against a sitting Republican vice-president following a very popular and loved two-term Republican president — was just too much. Bentsen’s main qualification seemed to be that he’d beaten George Bush before, in the 1970 race for the US Senate from Texas.
On the other hand, Bush seemed to be picking his assassination insurance when he chose Quayle. The guy seemed even less articulate than Bush (that itself no mean feat), and the fact that his family owned a newspaper and he was STILL utterly inept at handling the media was, I thought, a pretty hefty black mark. I did NOT appreciate my choices that year.
So when November came around, I had two very unappealing choices. And when I was alone in the booth with my very first choice about president to make, I did not vote for George Bush. I voted against Michael Dukakis — Bush was just the beneficiary of my rejection of the Duke.
Bush won handily, and promptly had an extremely mediocre presidency. He oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but Reagan had done most of the heavy lifting on that one. He got rid of Panama’s dictator, and that was pretty much a good thing.
And then there was the Gulf War.
That was Bush’s shining moment, when Iraq invaded and overthrew the Kuwaiti government . Bush managed to pull together a massive coalition against Saddam Hussein, then ordered a brilliant military campaign that soundly defeated the Iraqi military and forced Saddam to withdraw and accept severe sanctions in exchange for not being overthrown completely. Bush’s popularity was at record levels in the wake of Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
(Author’s note: some readers have previously questioned why I tend to refer to Saddam Hussein by his first name after first mention. It is not out of any sense of familiarity, but a legacy of my age. For most of my life, there were two leaders in the Middle East named Hussein — Saddam Hussein of Iraq and King Hussein of Jordan. On the other hand, there has only been one notable Saddam, so use of his first name was a convenient shorthand.)
Alas, Bush could not sustain his popularity in the wake of that first war. (Which, it should be mentioned, John Kerry voted against, but later supported — unlike the second Gulf War, which he voted for, then later opposed. He was against fighting Saddam before he was for it, and was for fighting Saddam before he was against it. But I digress.) He let Congress bully him into repudiating the key element of his 1988 campaign — “Read my lips, no new taxes!” — and that left him in the eyes of many voters (myself included) “damaged goods.
Bush knew he was in the fight of his political life in 1992, and promptly turned loose his secret weapon: James Baker.
Jim Baker, Reagan’s Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury, as well as Bush’s Secretary of State and, later, Chief of Staff, was pretty popular on his own. He was given much of the credit for pulling together the Gulf War coalition, where we actually got a large number of Arab nations to side against one of their own. He also kept Israel out of the fighting, despite numerous attacks, knowing that an Israeli reprisal would instantly turn those allies against us.
Bush said that if re-elected, he would have Jim Baker focus on the economy. In fact, Jim Baker would be handling a lot of the problems of the Bush administration in the second term.
When election day rolled around in 1992, I went into the voting booth, said “if Jim Baker is going to fix all these problems, why the hell isn’t HE on the ticket?” and voted against giving George Bush a second term — and in the process, doing my bit to inflict Bill Clinton on the nation. (In my defense, I voted for Tsongas in the primary, and am proud to this day of the time I saw Bill Clinton gladhanding voters in downtown Manchester — and deliberately snubbed him.)
Flash-forward 14 years. Bush’s son, George W. Bush, has just suffered a major political defeat in the midterm elections. So, what’s his response?
One of the defining elements of the Bush family is loyalty. They are very loyal to their friends, their family, and their allies. This is often to a fault — I suspect that was one of the elements behind the incredibly bad idea of nominating Harriet Myers to the Supreme Court.
But Dubya is very loyal to his father, and very respectful of him. By extension, I suspect, he sees “41’s” old allies and supporters as those to whom he owes a familial debt.
And that is why, I believe, he is bringing back so many of them. Robert Gates, who “41” appointed to his old job as CIA director, is returning as Secretary of Defense. And Jim Baker, the alleged “miracle worker,” is being called in to work his magic yet again in Iraq.
Back in 1992, I had the chance to vote for a second “Bush 41” term, and I rejected it at the time. I didn’t vote for it in 2004, either — I wanted a second “Bush 43” term — I’d liked (or at least respected) what he’d achieved in his first term, and I preferred more of that over (shudder) a John Kerry administration.
If you’re trying to make your last two years into a de facto second term for your father, Mr. President, you should be aware that it NOT what I voted for two years ago. And, I dare say, not what a lot of those who voted for you wanted. Loyalty to your father and his legacy is well and good, but remember — when given the chance to give him that term on his own, we chose not to.
You’ve never been one to play to people’s expectations, Mr. President. And now, after being “thumped” in the midterm elections, many people expect you to be the lamest of lame ducks for your last two years in office. Bringing back so many of your father’s
cronies advisors is NOT a good idea.
After all, they are the ones that helped him piss away a 90% approval rating into a crushing defeat.