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Bush and Yale

George H. W. Bush ’48 was the quintessential Eli. But he changed. And so did Yale.

David Frum ’82, ’82MA, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush ’68, is a staff writer at the Atlantic. He is the author of nine books, most recently the New York Times bestseller Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.

The second President Bush voiced a grievance that the elder would never have allowed himself. Speaking at Yale for the 2001 commencement, George W. Bush ’68 quipped: “Most people think that to speak at Yale’s commencement, you have to be president. But over the years, the specifications have become far more demanding. Now you have to be a Yale graduate; you have to be president; and you have had to have lost the Yale vote to Ralph Nader.”

Ha, ha, kidding, not really. The American political dynasties associated with Harvard—Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy—were ideologically aligned with their university during their lifetimes. Through most of their lifetimes, the Bushes of Yale were emphatically not.

Yet life and chance work many changes. The final chapters of the life of George H. W. Bush brought recognition of the 41st president’s decency of character and startling legacy of achievement in the span of only a single term in office: the liberation of Kuwait, the peaceful unification of Germany, the radical reduction of acid rain, and a balanced-budget deal that put the country on the path to the prosperity of the later 1990s.

Before the estrangement of the 1980s, the Yale-Bush tie started early and for a long time held strong. When future US Senator Prescott Bush arrived at Yale in 1913, he followed his uncle (Robert Sheldon, Class of 1904) and his grandfather (James Smith Bush, Class of 1844). (Prescott Bush’s father, Samuel Bush, had opted for a technical education, on the strength of which he earned a fortune in the steel industry.) Prescott’s son, George Herbert Walker Bush ’48, followed his father to Yale after demobilization from his heroic service in the US Navy in World War II.

From the 1840s to the 1940s, Yale and the Bush family had grown together. Then, very abruptly, their ways parted. George H. W. Bush turned away from the Northeast to seek his economic and political fortune in Texas. And Yale turned away from its former conservatism to seek a new destiny as a premier institution of postwar liberalism.

 

Like his father, George H. W. Bush remained a Republican. But in his new home, he adapted to a Republicanism of a very different kind. As a United States senator from Connecticut, Prescott Bush had opposed Joe McCarthy, voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (the first federal civil rights legislation since Reconstruction), and cosponsored the bill creating the Peace Corps. George H. W. Bush jettisoned his father’s patrician New England politics. He strongly supported Barry Goldwater’s bid for the Republican nomination in 1964. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prescott Bush had supported Planned Parenthood in the early 1950s. By 1980, George H. W. Bush had embraced right-to-life.

George H. W. Bush advanced within Sunbelt conservative politics without ever being naturalized to it. Bush would later pronounce an acute political self-assessment: “I’m a conservative, but I’m not a nut about it.” He wanted to signal level-headedness and openness to facts. But throughout his career, many of the conservatives he led would perceive in him a lack of conviction and commitment. This perception would bedevil him at crucial moments, most fatally after he reversed his famous 1988 pledge: “Read my lips—no new taxes.”

Yet the same perception was also the secret of his success. Bush epitomized a conservatism that could appeal to nonideological voters: negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and sign the Americans with Disabilities Act; win the Gulf War and withdraw troops fast afterward; above all, work cooperatively with Soviet leaders to end the Cold War largely on American terms.

The journey from Texas congressman to US president proceeded through a sequence of distinguished positions, any one of which might seem to most people the zenith of a career: ambassador to the United Nations, chair of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, director of the CIA, vice president of the United States. How did he do it? Bush, like all his clan, had a genius for human relationships: creating them, sustaining them, developing them. The most stunning example of that relationship management was with his sometime rival, then partner, then patron—Ronald Reagan.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan’s challenge to the incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford ’41LLB, had pushed the GOP into its most savage internecine feud since the Roosevelt vs. Taft contest of 1912. Four years later, Reagan again sought the nomination—and Bush emerged as the candidate of those who’d favored Ford four years before. But this time, instead of convulsing the party, the contest brought peace. Reagan won, and he chose Bush as his running mate. Over the next eight years, the two paladins of their respective party factions worked harmoniously together. Vice President Bush’s closest advisers—notably James A. Baker—became trusted advisers to President Reagan too. Without overtly intervening in the 1988 presidential contest, Reagan smoothed Bush’s way to that year’s Republican nomination.

Along the way, Bush not only unified his party, but also played a crucial part in developing the modern vice presidency. The first man to hold the vice presidency, John Adams, had complained: “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Hubert Humphrey and Spiro Agnew would not have thought very differently.

Beginning with Walter Mondale in the late 1970s, however, the role of the vice president had begun to grow. Mondale initiated the tradition of weekly lunches with the president and established vice presidential office space in the West Wing. Bush enlarged that new role by accepting highly technical tasks coordinating policy across departments—deregulation, drug interdiction—and by putting his foreign policy expertise at the service of a domestically oriented president. After Bush, some vice presidents would exert more influence, some less, but nobody would ever again describe the job as “insignificant.”

 

The years of George H. W. Bush’s rise were years of social ferment. The United States had known such periods before: the 1840s, the Progressive Era, the Great Depression. In those prior periods, however, America’s great universities had been bulwarks of social conservatism, defenders of established ways of doing things. In the 1960s and 1970s, for the first time, universities undertook to accelerate change. Under the hand of Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41, Yale—historically one of the most conservative of these conservative institutions—leapt to lead the way.

The Yale that emerged from the Brewster era was one that looked with disquiet and even dislike on the career of a George H. W. Bush. I was a Yale undergraduate during the campaign of 1980, and I can’t remember any Bush constituency at all. Most students, and nearly all faculty, were Democrats. The small conservative minority was highly ideological and almost unanimously committed to the exciting Reagan campaign. The only student I remember as pro-Bush was a Texan whose parents were friendly with the Bush family.

George H. W. Bush would hire and promote Yale talent. Christopher Buckley ’75 would write speeches for him. Richard Cheney ’63 (who entered Yale but did not finish) became his secretary of defense. Clarence Thomas ’74JD was his nominee to the Supreme Court. Some of those Bush Yalies had seen themselves as renegades and rebels against a hostile alma mater while they were in New Haven—and even afterwards: for many years after his appointment, Justice Thomas refused to allow his portrait to hang at Yale. (He reputedly decorated his chambers with a bumper sticker that read, “Save America: Close Yale Law School.”) Most famously, George W. Bush complained to the New York Times that Yale had waited too long to award his father an honorary degree.

In the last third of the twentieth century, the United States suffered a strange bifurcation between the party that won elections more often and the country’s leading educational institutions. The causes of this bifurcation are deep and complex. One consequence, however, is simple and clear: the protracted and pervasive underappreciation of an American president by the institution that educated him and so much of his family.

 

Like Dwight Eisenhower—a president Prescott Bush worked closely with—George H. W. Bush was a president whose accomplishments have become clearer as the passions of his time subside. Bush’s budget negotiations in 1990 and 1991 put the country on the path to budget balance in the years ahead. Bush cleaned up the savings and loan crisis so thoroughly that nobody except specialists even remembers it now, although the size of the savings and loan sector in 1990 was very nearly the same as that of the subprime mortgage industry in 2006. The Gulf War masterfully applied maximum force to attainable goals. Bush’s Clean Air Act of 1990 reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by 67 percent over the following 20 years.

Most important and successful of all was his management of the end of the Cold War. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, dominate the closest study of the breakup of the Soviet Union, The Last Empire by Harvard’s Serhii Plokhy. As the Soviet regime cracked apart, Bush and Baker built a policy on clear priorities, which they executed with consistent determination. Priority One: secure the Soviet nuclear weapons force against misuse. Only after that came Priority Two: gain Soviet acceptance for the reunification of Germany. All other priorities that followed ranked below those two supreme considerations.

Thanks to that clarity of focus, those two highest concerns were brought to a successful conclusion. Much about the Cold War ended murkily and badly. Yugoslavia disintegrated into a horrific civil war. China defeated the trend to liberalization. Not all the decommunized states made a rapid or easy transition—and, a quarter century later, some of them are backsliding toward authoritarianism. But presidents are not judged by whether they solved every problem, only the most urgent and important problems presented to them. In a magazine article in 2000, Jonathan Rauch of the New Republic saluted George H. W. Bush as “our greatest modern president.” He expressed hope that the American “public may be coming to appreciate the sort of unglamorous, surefooted presidency that Bush represents.”

Rauch’s hope has come to pass, especially at the university once so close to—then so alienated from—this Yale presidency. The belated honorary degree was at last conferred in 1991. A leadership award for alumni athletes was named in his honor in 2001. In 2015, the Yale College Council bestowed its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award upon George H. W. Bush. More naming may well follow in the years and decades ahead.

As politics fades into history, immediate judgments are refined by critical reappraisal. The passions of the moment fade into the sober assessments of scholarship. Old quarrels yield to new wisdom. With perspective comes respect. Here, at this university again so central to the Bush family, the final and most considered chapter of the George H. W. Bush story will be studied, written, told, and retold to generations of Americans to come.

2 comments

  • Ted Cohen
    Ted Cohen, 8:21am January 02 2019 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Bush? A Republican?

    Bush had no beliefs, Republican or otherwise.

    "Decency of character." Really?

    Willie Horton ring any bells?

    "Startling legacy of achievement." Really? Name one thing.

    Sorry, Frum is perpetuating the fake-Bush myth in this obit.

    (Repost fixes typo.)

  • Sassan K. Darian
    Sassan K. Darian, 9:57am January 02 2019 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Another masterful read by Mr. Frum. This was a very touching obituary. From the time he wrote the late Christopher Hitchens' obituary to George H.W. Bush, the prose in writing and moral character described among these vastly different men shows that regardless of beliefs what matters are core beliefs and moral character. Unfortunately this does not exist within the occupant of the White House who will most likely be shown to be illegitimate. Thank you.

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