Reflecting on an Underrated President

This week, former President George H.W. Bush was rushed to the hospital after a medical scare characterized as “shortness of breath.” While the ensuing reports have indicated the nation’s 41st president will be okay, the emergency provides us with a moment to reflect on a leader often underrated in reputation. Overshadowed by Reagan on one hand and by his son on the other – for very different reasons – the elder Bush’s presidential legacy has been denied its due appreciation.

If George H.W. Bush stood for anything, it was a return to traditional American values. Some of his criticisms of pop culture seem quaint by today’s standards – he took aim at rap music and the Simpsons at various points – but look at the legacy at that early 90s subversiveness. Every generation is destined to shake their heads at the next, but we’re a long way from the outrage of Elvis Presley. Maybe our culture would have been better off had we been as turned off by “Cop Killer” as Bush.

A World in Flux

But the world was changing in ways much more dramatic than what kids were watching on TV. The Cold War was coming to an end, a corrupt drug trafficker was threatening the Panama Canal, and Iraq had emerged as an unpredictable enemy in the Middle East. In tackling these new challenges, Bush proved himself to be the equal of his predecessor. His Desert Storm, pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, was a startling demonstration of American military might. In just 100 hours, the Iraqi army was soundly defeated and Kuwait’s freedom was restored.

Bush experienced a surge of popularity following the war, but the economy at home was starting to cool. He faced increasing criticisms from the right, and his chances for re-election in 1992 were dashed by Texas oil man Ross Perot. Perot’s call for a more fiscally-responsible Washington resonated with Republican voters who might have otherwise given Bush another four years. Instead, the split vote allowed Bill Clinton to take the White House.

A Legacy of Prudence

Bush is today still remembered as a somewhat weak president, though many of his economic policies found redemption in the 1990s. Clinton gets the lion’s share of the credit when it comes to the booming economy, but the seeds for that boom were planted by Bush in the budget deal of 1990. The criticism he garnered for failing to follow Hussein into Iraq was later reconsidered when his son’s war turned into a years-long quagmire.

No single-term president is necessarily destined for greatness, and it’s unlikely that Bush will ever be regarded among the best of the best. But in his diplomatic manner, he handled the end of the Cold War with an aplomb that is easy to appreciate after enduring the reckless swagger of 43. Maybe the three presidents that came after him make Bush look better in retrospect, but that’s not a knock. It’s been more than twenty years since he left office, and he’s yet to be bettered. That says something. It doesn’t say everything, but it certainly says something.

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