A few years ago, a letter Bush wrote on May 11, 1995, resigning his membership in the National Rifle Association went viral on Reddit and everywhere else.
“Your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor,” Bush wrote to Wayne LaPierre, who still serves as the NRA’s executive vice president and main spokesperson. “It offends my concept of service to country.”
Bush was then three years past a defeat driven by his party’s militant new grassroots. He had been Ronald Reagan’s rival and then his loyal vice president, but while Reagan had won conservatives’ loyalty through the bitter 1960s and 1970s, Bush was never one of them. Reagan made a deal that raised taxes and still remained a god; Bush violated a pledge not to raise taxes, and never recovered.
He faced a massive defection from inside his own party on the tax issue, and a cultural assault from Pat Buchanan’s nativist, isolationist 1992 primary campaign that may have fatally damaged his candidacy and presaged President Donald Trump a quarter century later. The elements of Bush’s presidency that had proven most successful and engaging to him — managing the American relationship with a collapsing Soviet Union — simply deepened suspicions about his ties to the New World Order.
Now George H.W. Bush, hated by Democrats with at least the required partisan loathing during his term in office, is their favorite Republican. His best-remembered piece of domestic legislation, after signing off on that budget-balancing tax increase, is the Americans With Disabilities Act. It was considered a risky act of filial loyalty when his son Jeb offered that the tax increase was “helpful in creating a climate of more sustained economic growth.” (“Politically it clearly didn’t work out,” Jeb added ruefully.)
George H.W. Bush’s namesake, the 43rd president, never made the mistake of aligning himself with his father’s policies. Indeed, he governed for eight years in stark rejection of his father’s foreign and domestic policies, never letting the Republican base slip from his sight.
George H.W. Bush’s political legacy inside his own party is limited — if candidate Trump flirted with a return to the realist foreign policy the first Bush preferred, it was never by name. He brutalized the Bush family during the campaign, and could not seem less like George H.W. Bush in style as president.
Indeed, the only contemporary figure ever associated with the 41st president is Barack Obama, who is also a rare figure to offer a wholehearted embrace of that single-term legacy.
“The truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional, bipartisan, realistic foreign policy of George Bush’s father, John F. Kennedy, of, in some ways, Ronald Reagan,” Obama said as he campaigned against Hillary Clinton in 2008.
Obama alone explicitly associated himself with Bush’s foreign policy. And Bush’s emergence into the liberal imagination was at its root a product of his eldest son’s two intensely divisive terms. The Iraq War was George W. Bush’s most controversial policy, and it was an area where leading figures from his father’s term, like former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, made clear their differences.
The new nostalgia for the older Bush often revolved around pop psychology — the son was there to finish what his father had started, and was obsessed with avoiding his dad’s political mistakes, they said. But it also offered Democrats a response to a new, neoconservative chorus that compared the Iraq War to Bill Clinton’s bombing of Serbia, and Saddam Hussein’s human rights record to that of Balkan war criminals.
“The foreign policy of the Obama administration resembles nothing so much as the foreign policy of Bush 41,” a foreign policy aide to Bush, Richard Haass, suggested in 2009.
Bush was, as much as anyone else, the embodiment of the Republican Party establishment. That was enough to make him president 20 years ago; today, he was the last of the Mohicans.