George H.W. Bush, the careful and pragmatic manager of the Cold War’s final dramas, had nearly every tool a great president needs. He had fire and drive, which are indispensable to a great statesman. From his glamorous youth through his momentous single term as 41st President of the United States, Bush was consumed, in the words of one biographer, by “an almost insatiable ambition and competitiveness.” He had experience, gained over decades in private business and public service. He had good judgment, cultivating the quality that Aristotle called “practical wisdom,” but which Bush referred to as “prudence.” He had the courage to make difficult decisions. He was discerning in his choice of strong advisers, and was comfortable with dissenting views. Bush was a natural born leader.
All of which points to the riddle of his life: why did his presidency end in rejection?
Bush—who died Nov. 30, 2018 at the age of 94 years, eight months after the passing of his wife Barbara employed all of his strengths as, step by cautious step, he consolidated America’s position as the lone superpower in a new world order while, at the same time, he allowed the Soviet Union to die with a measure of dignity. Rarely, if ever, has so much power shifted so peacefully. Then Bush marshaled this enhanced U.S. influence to lead a global coalition to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Thirty-five nations, from Syria to Senegal and Bahrain to Bangladesh, contributed support to the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm. Bush’s decision, after driving the invaders out, to stop short of forcing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power was necessary to hold the coalition together. It was the prudent thing to do, though arguably it came at a price that is still being paid more than a quarter-century later.
So what was the missing piece or surplus gene to explain his failure in 1992 to win a second term? Perhaps it was as simple as unlucky timing. Bush had the unenviable task of following Ronald Reagan, the genial conservative who chose Bush to be his two-term vice-president. Eight years in which Reagan restored stability to the presidency after a string of five administrations cut short by assassination, Vietnam, Watergate, an energy crisis and runaway inflation. Reagan was among the most popular presidents of the 20th Century, and—as singer Andy Williams once said of Vegas showman Joe E. Lewis—he was “the star, he always got top billing, and he always closed the show.”
But poor timing alone could not explain the Bush roller-coaster—from landslide victory in 1988 to sky-high approval ratings in 1991, only to meet crushing defeat the following year. Bush was uncomfortable with many of the public aspects of the presidency. The demands of self-promotion ran counter to his well-bred Yankee reticence, even as his will to win drove him more than once to embrace eye-gouging political tactics. Bush was that rare hybrid, a self-effacing president. His blazing internal fire was carefully banked beneath a mantle of modesty carved into his character by his forceful mother. “He was always hearing his mother’s admonitions to avoid talking about himself,” wrote biographer Jon Meacham, “which created an ambivalent relationship between himself and the first-person pronoun.”
In his youth, Bush admired the quiet and modestly great first baseman Lou Gehrig over brash Babe Ruth, and even if you didn’t know this fact, you could guess it from the way he carried himself in office. Bush was better at being president than he was at appearing presidential, and while competence is a necessary ingredient in Oval Office success, it is not sufficient. He never embraced the reality that the presidency is a performance art. Does the artist inhabit the role? After the electorate chose to restore him to private life, Bush slipped from the costumes of power like a boy escaping from a scratchy Christmas sweater.