Like many Americans, I felt a warm patriotic pride yesterday when George H. W. Bush was laid to rest. He was a public servant, a decent man, and our leader during the miraculous years when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to a successful end.
I’ll take the eulogists at their word. Christopher Buckley penned a loving remembrance of a man who seems to have been a kind boss. No doubt our forty-first president had the thoughtfulness, humor, and loyalty one hopes for in friends. But as a citizen far removed from intimate contact with our governing elites, I saw him as an unreliable political leader.
I voted for H. W. in 1988, though I knew I’d be disappointed. Bush was a Yankee Republican, which meant his instincts were those of a moderate who didn’t so much disagree with liberals as worry that they tended to go too far. He was not a Goldwater-Reagan man, not by a long shot. Nevertheless, when he ran for president he put on the mantle of Reaganism and ran as the Gipper’s loyal paladin, committed to carrying the cause forward.
Like the good WASP grandee he was trained to be, Bush grimaced at the dirty necessities of electoral politics. He told the people what they wanted to hear, knowing that he would of course govern in accord with his “better” judgment.
His infamous “Read my lips” promise of no new taxes epitomized this fact about George H. W. Bush the politician. Lee Atwater’s use of the Willie Horton meme to damage Michael Dukakis is another example. Bush was without doubt committed to the common good, and he served it as he saw best. But he was a political prevaricator, as many politicians are, allowing consultants and campaign operatives to craft his message and image in order to win, while knowing that he would be rather different once in office.
Bill Clinton did the same thing, though with greater effectiveness and a new shamelessness. The “aw-shucks” Arkansas governor burnished his image as a moderate Democrat, even to the point of ostentatiously signing an execution order in the run-up to his successful campaign for the presidency. He infamously declared, “The era of big government is over.” His first major initiative was putting his wife in charge of reengineering the healthcare industry for the entire nation.
Don’t misunderstand me. To some degree our politics requires a degree of “flexibility.” Our two-party system operates in a huge country with different regions, interests, and ideologies. This means the major parties are big, baggy coalitions that require delicate management. Moreover, in a media-driven political culture there’s always a gap between public image and personal reality.
George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, however, represented something different. They were very nearly the opposite of each of their carefully crafted electoral images. Bush had no sympathy for the sources of conservative resurgence in the postwar era. There wasn’t a smidgen of Barry Goldwater in him. He was culturally alienated from the Religious Right. Unlike Bush, Bill Clinton had a powerful emotional rapport with the working-class people who remained the base of the Democratic Party. But he was at heart a brilliant, elite-educated technocrat of the New Class.
I’d vastly prefer George H. W. Bush to Donald J. Trump as a business partner, father-in-law, classmate, neighbor, or friend. I’d be less enthusiastic about Bill Clinton, though I’m sure that unlike Trump he’d be fantastic in a wide-ranging late-night bull session and an excellent companion on a boozy junket. In the realm of politics, however, I prefer Trump’s honesty.
Unlike Bush and Clinton, Trump governs as he ran. The wall, tariffs, tearing up trade deals, criticizing free-loading allies—none of these campaign themes turned out to be in the “Read my lips” category of saying what needs to be said just to get elected.
Trump disregarded the first principle of voter manipulation. He did not pander to the Republican base in the primaries and then tack to the middle in the general election. His themes, rhetoric, and pugilistic style remained constant. He ignored the playbook recommended after the 2012 election, which advised accepting multicultural rules of politics set by the left. On the contrary, his campaign was punctuated by violations of political correctness that raised constant uproar—as is his presidency. There seems to be no deception. What we saw is what we are getting.
This may or may not commend Trump as a leader. I’m not a fan of his undisciplined personality. But I happen to think many of his campaign promises reflect sound intuitions about what our country needs right now. My assessment is thus mixed.
But let’s leave aside the questions of whether we respect, like, or agree with Trump. The passing of George H. W. Bush, a very different sort of man and political figure, highlights an important truth worth pondering. Political honesty means telling the voters who you are and what you promise to do—and then governing as that person and in accord with those promises. By this measure, Trump is the most honest political figure of his generation.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.