The first vote I ever cast was for Jimmy Carter, thereby making my particular evidentiary contribution to the idea that the 26th Amendment was a mistake.
In an effort to atone for that electoral version of original sin, I began perusing the large field of 1980 GOP contenders that Carter's subsequent presidential incompetence provoked. Any one of them would have been preferable to the sanctimonious peanut farmer (apart from the execrable Lowell Weicker), but what I was really looking for was a more moderate alternative to Ronald Reagan.
I settled on former CIA director George Bush, who claimed to have "the Big Mo" coming out of Iowa, thereby guaranteeing that he would lose it just a few weeks later in New Hampshire. I cast my first-ever primary vote for him in Illinois that March anyway, forsaking my hometown congressman John B. Anderson, but he finished a distant third with just 11 percent and that was that.
Bush-Reagan was always a bit of a mismatch, in the same sense that Bush-Clinton would be 12 years later, largely because Reagan and Bill Clinton were remarkably talented politicians and Bush anything but.
We forget that Reagan's passing of the presidential baton to Bush in 1988 represented the latter's only electoral victory of any kind outside Texas' 7th congressional district (he lost two Senate races in Texas), and that his campaign actually started out way behind tank commander Michael Dukakis and needed all the help it would eventually get from Lee Atwater.
Bush was simply better at getting appointed to things, like envoy to China, chair of the Republican National Committee, ambassador to the United Nations and yes, the vice presidency, than he was at corralling votes.
But that Bush wasn't a particularly good politician might also have ultimately been what made him such a decent and good man; indeed, his most obvious political weaknesses happened to be those personal qualities that I now remember most fondly.
Bush admitted that he lacked the "vision thing," but that should hardly be a disqualification when considering that it has been visionary politicians who have been responsible for most of our bloody wars and revolutions and genocide of the past century or so. "Boring" becomes a liability only when our historical memory falters.
Nor should Bush's "stewardship" conception of the presidency have been unwelcome in a healthy body politic--since most of what presidents do (like government in general) is either harmful or unnecessary, a good president is one who tries to do as little harm as possible by doing as little as necessary.
Try as he might, Bush could never come across as just an ordinary fellow who ate pork rinds and hated broccoli because he most obviously wasn't, in the sense that most of us aren't the sons of U.S. senators and didn't play baseball at Yale or get shot down over the Pacific while flying one of 58 combat missions in World War II.
Bush lacked the "common touch," but so do most people of uncommon accomplishment, ability and integrity. To accuse him of being a patrician is only to say that he had better manners than the rest of us.
Bush's best moment on the campaign trail consequently was the most damaging--on that stage in Richmond when he kept sneaking looks at his watch, bored stiff during an idiotic "debate" like any normal human being should have been. The thought bubble was easy to read: "When is this damn dog and pony show going to be over so I can get back to my job?"
Bill Clinton responded to the same questions that frustrated Bush by staring soulfully into the camera, biting his lower lip, and bobbing his head and, in a flash, Bush became a one-term president.
As media analyst Kathleen Hall Jamieson put it, "Clinton steps in and empathizes, empathizes, empathizes." And it worked, at least for voters impressed by that sort of thing, of which we now know we have way too many.
I've never wanted a president who could feel my pain, only one that wouldn't cause too much of it.
Bush receiving just 37 percent of the popular vote in his re-election bid (the worst performance for an incumbent since William Howard Taft) thus constitutes one of history's more notorious cases of voter ingratitude, perhaps second only to the British tossing out Winston Churchill after he had saved them (and western civilization) from Der Fuhrer and while he was in the midst of a rather important confab at Potsdam with Truman and Stalin.
It isn't always the economy, stupid; or at least it shouldn't be: The most important by far part of the presidential portfolio is protection of the nation's security, and Bush had managed to expel both the toxic Manuel Noriega from power in Panama and Saddam's pillaging minions from Kuwait with minimal American bloodshed.
More significant still, with only a few miscues (the "Chicken Kiev" speech), he had adeptly presided over the most important event in world politics in the post-World War II era--the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
And the voters then threw him over in favor of that fellow whose foreign-policy experience consisted largely of breakfast at the International House of Pancakes.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.
Editorial on 12/10/2018
Print Headline: The best of George