Among the most unlikely and most fortunate events in American history was the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush, who will celebrate his 87th birthday on Sunday.
You may consider each of those points – unlikely, very lucky – an overstatement, so let me explain.
First, was Mr. Bush’s election really all that unlikely?
In 1988, I was a speechwriter for President Reagan. Going into the year, the Democrats could barely wait for the campaign to start. The president was down in the polls. Iran-Contra had taken its toll. To them and the media, the election of Mr. Reagan’s vice president was unthinkable. Meanwhile, within the White House, presidential counselors were advocating that the president stay out of the race. Mixing the outgoing chief executive in election politics was “unpresidential” they argued.
I thought this keep-the-president-aloof plan was insane and made my view known to anyone who would listen. For example, after receiving a briefing at the State Department in preparation for the Toronto Economic Summit of that year, I shared my concern with my briefer, the under secretary for economic affairs, as I recall. It turned out that he had served as a member of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors. He told me that in 1960 Ike’s handlers had taken the same above-it-all view. Ike could have put Nixon over the top, he believed, in which he was surely correct.
Then he talked about the cost of that mistake. By 1960 inflation was all but out of the economy. Growth was steady and sustainable. We were in a strong position in the Cold War, even as we were nowhere in a shooting war. Eight years later, the gains against inflation had been lost. The economy was faltering. We were stuck in a hot war with no plan either for winning or exiting. Go back and keep pushing them he said as I left.
Of course, my low-level nagging had zero impact on the events that followed. But there was a shake up in the White House. A more aggressive senior staff was put in place. And the president launched full throttle into the race.
How rare was Mr. Bush’s win? No vice president since Martin Van Buren in 1836 had been elected directly to the presidency. Except for Herbert Hoover’s victory in 1928 and William Howard Taft’s in 1908, you had to go back to the post-Civil War era to find an election without an incumbent on either ticket where the presidency did not change parties – and, as I say, none of those campaigns involved a sitting vice president. In other words, anyone betting on Mr. Bush’s victory in late 1987 would have said, not a chance. And yet, as good luck had it, he won.
Second, why was it a stroke of fortune for the country?
To answer that question, let me pose another question. Was there anyone in the nation (with the exception of Mr. Bush’s predecessor) to whom you would have entrusted with equal confidence the oversight of American global affairs at the time the Soviet Union was collapsing?
Some say, oh, he should have trumpeted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet communist state. Are they kidding? The key to bringing the Cold War to a peaceful and successful conclusion was that the U.S. did NOT act like a victor but as a friend, helping Russia cross the threshold from a brutal and archaic empire to a “normal country,” as the saying of the time had it. In this strategy Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan were in complete agreement.
As Mr. Bush wrote with his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft in their brilliant volume, A World Transformed:
The long-run framework of Bush foreign policy was very deliberate: encouraging, guiding, and managing change without provoking backlash and crackdown…. At a time when personalities and relationships made a significant difference to the course of history, the international leadership, East and West, found it could work generally to sort out the tough issues – on Germany, or Iraq, on the future of Europe. The great forces in action could have led to world catastrophe, but with the down and dirty, hands on participation, we molded it so there were no losers, only winners, furthering stability and long-term relations for the sake of peace. We eluded the shadow of another Versailles.
It is not too much to say that, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon, no U.S. chief executive in history has entered office with an equal knowledge of the global personalities and their relationships. None has started his presidency with as firm a grasp on the “down and dirty” of harnessing those relationships to resolve the long twilight struggle in favor of peace and freedom. No one could have carried the strategy of Mr. Bush’s predecessor – a strategy that Mr. Bush participated in developing – to such a stunning conclusion.
During this, his birthday week, George H.W. Bush deserves far more recognition for his stunning achievement than he has yet received. In his four presidential years, he brought to pass a miracle of diplomacy and leadership. The nation and the world are tremendously fortunate he occupied that office at that time.