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Is George H.W. Bush America’s Greatest Living President?

George HW Bush

In the pantheon of recent former Presidents, George Herbert Walker Bush hasn’t always ranked very highly. In no small part, of course, that came about because he stands in that small group of Presidents who not only served only a single term in office, but also stood for re-election and were defeated.Additionally, when he left office after losing the 1992 election Bush’s time in office was seen as largely a failure by his opponents and by members of his own party. Indeed, by the time Bush’s son ran for President eight years later, the Republican Party that the senior Bush had led had changed significantly and had largely repudiated the Bush Presidency as they rose to power in Washington. At the top of the list, of course, was Bush’s supposed hypocrisy regarding taxes arising out of the 1989 budget deal with Congressional Democrats, but Republicans distanced themselves from the senior Bush in other ways as well, not the least of them being temperment. As the former President has aged, public sentiment about his time in office has softened significantly, due in no small part to his public friendship with the man he defeated in 1992. Additionally, the fact that he became known during his son’s time in office as the guy who jumped out of airplanes to celebrate his 80th birthday has revealed a side of the man that wasn’t really apparent during his time as Vice-President and President. Politically, though, the Bush 41 years are still viewed negatively by most people on the left and the right.

In The National Interest, though, James Antle puts forward the case that George H.W. Bush is in fact our greatest living President:

Bush was a temperamental conservative in the way that his more ideologically minded successors, ranging from Newt Gingrich to his own son, were not. The old Dana Carvey sketches about Bush featured the president saying, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”

“Prudence” was once a hallmark of conservatism. Indeed, one of Russell Kirk’s seminal works was titled The Politics of Prudence: Ten Conservative Principles. “Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata,” Kirk  wrote .

Kirk supported Pat Buchanan over Bush in 1992, serving as Buchanan’s Michigan state chairman. Prudence could only carry a president so far.

The perilous situation unfolding in Ukraine under President Obama and the debacle in Iraq unleashed by the younger George Bush should nevertheless remind us that prudent statesmanship is easy to take for granted. Bush 41 skillfully presided over the collapse of Soviet communism and apartheid in South Africa. Does anything the U.S. has done in response to, say, the Arab spring really compare?

Hard as it is to believe, we once had a President Bush who was capable of winning a war in Iraq.

Perhaps because it wasn’t a war of choice, Saddam was the aggressor, and there was a genuine international coalition.

The neoconservative Washington Free Beacon has a running  joke describing George W. Bush as America’s greatest living president. (Well, they might not be kidding, but it is pretty funny.) But it is a title that might properly belong to his father.

The younger Bush was better on taxes and a host of small-ball conservative initiatives. Even with John Roberts’ Obamacare vote, he was less of a mixed bag on Supreme Court appointees—David Souter turned out to be nearly as liberal as Clarence Thomas was conservative.

Bill Clinton’s main achievement was not screwing up the Internet boom of the 1990s. That was not for lack of trying, however. He had hoped for a larger tax increase and he aimed to inflict his wife on the health care system Obamacare-style. Clinton quietly ushered in the interventionism run amuck that his successor would take to the next level. He is mainly remembered for scandal, embarrassment, and Monica Lewinsky oral sex jokes.

About Jimmy Carter, the less that is said, the better.

Does not George H.W. Bush’s record compare favorably to all these living presidents? And is there anything you have seen in the last five years that suggests Obama would have been the man you want presiding over the disintegration of the Soviet Union or the reunification of Germany?

Antle is obviously letting some of his own political preferences show through here, but that’s somewhat inevitable whenever one assesses the legacy of former political leaders, especially those that have served in office relatively recently. Leaving that aside, though, it strikes me that he makes a good case for the position that George H.W. Bush was a far better President than he’s generally given credit for, and that history is likely to have a far more sympathetic view of his time in office than we’ve seen in the political arena in the 21 years since he left office.

Let’s start with the area that Bush is most often associated with, and the one that he’s admitted more than once that he’s more comfortable with, foreign policy. When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev had been in office in the Soviet Union for five years and we’d already seen he and President Reagan open new grounds in relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President Bush picked up where his predecessor left off, including successfully completing the negotiations that led to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the most far reaching nuclear arms reduction treaty that had been reached to date. It was also during Bush’s time in office that we saw the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and then the Soviet Union itself, collapse over the course of a two year period that began mere months after he took office and ended in December 1991 when the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the final time. In between there were protests throughout Eastern Europe, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and Communist Party hardliners in Moscow launched a coup d’etat that had the entire world on edge for nearly a week in August 1991. At various times during these events, many on the right criticized Bush for not being somehow more “aggressive” in response to unfolding events, but as Bush and others have pointed out since then there were very good reasons for not “spiking the football” on the Cold War, including the danger that it would provoke nationalist responses in Europe. Perhaps more than anything else then, Bush deserves much credit precisely for the prudence that Antle is referring to above because, under the circumstances at the time, it’s exactly what was called for.

If Bush was seemingly reticent to act rashly in response to the unfolding events in Eastern Europe, he displayed no such reticence when it came to responding to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Within days after the invasion, thanks in no small part to a weekend meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during which, according to some versions of history, she persuaded Bush and Secretary of State James Baker that the west couldn’t allow the invasion to stand, President Bush committed the American military to its largest operation since the Vietnam War and engaged in a contest of wills with Saddam Hussein, who didn’t seem to believe that the Americans would actually do anything about his invasion of this small nation on the Arabian Peninsula. In the end, of course, the war wasn’t a contest at all and, for a time, Bush enjoyed some of the highest job approval ratings any President had ever seen before. There were those who criticized Bush’s decision to launch Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, of course, and I’ll admit that at the time I was skeptical of the whole adventure myself. In retrospect, though, it seems clear that Bush made the right decision to go to war, and that it would have set a bad precedent for the approached post Cold War era to allow a naked grab for territory like the one Saddam engaged in go unanswered. The fact that he managed to pull the whole thing off while the Soviet Union still existed just makes the whole thing seem even more extraordinary in retrospect.

Domestically, Bush’s record is admittedly not nearly as noteworthy. He left office in no small part due to an economic recession that wasn’t his fault so much as the natural consequence of nearly a decade of very strong economic growth combined with a collapse in world energy markets that happened just after the end of the Persian Gulf War. Bush’s problem, though, was that he never seemed to connect with voters the way that either his predecessor or successor in office did so, when that economic downturn happened it seemed to a lot of people as if he didn’t really care, which to be fair was likely fair from the truth. Legislatively, Bush’s successes were somewhat limited, although he is credited with helping push the Americans With Disabilities Act through Congress and he also set in motion the negotiations that led to the ratification of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

In the end, whether one agrees with Antle that Bush is the greatest living President depends on one’s political opinions. At the very least, though, one can make the case that he was at least as good a President as Bill Clinton and, of course, far better in retrospect than either Jimmy Carter or his son. Where might Barack Obama rank on this list when he leaves office in 2017? Well, we’ll just have to leave that question for another day.

1 Twelve Presidents have served only a single full term or less in office. Of those just four—William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush–stood for reelection and lost.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. wr says:

    More hagiography from a party desperate to find boots to lick. Or maybe this guy has just figured out their are so many lips pressed to Reagan’s immortal ass that he’ll never be noticed there.

    The first Bush was a non-entity as a president and has exhibited some common human decency as an ex. That places him above just about every other Republican on the evolutionary scale. But
    Carter was no less a president — despite a decades-long smear campaign against him — and a hugely better ex-president.

    Nice try at diminshing Clinton’s actual accomplishments, though. I think we’re over the “if a Republican president does something, it’s because he has loins of steel; if a Democratic president accomplishes something it’s really all because of Republicans in congress.” The only thing he forgot was to claim that Clinton’s booming economy was really due to Reagan’s policies.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 32 Thumb down 10

  2. Jr says:

    It is Obama, given the way historians actually rank presidents historically.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  3. al-Ameda says:

    I believe that Bill Clinton is clearly the best of the living presidents. If Republicans had not gone off the deep end and run what was a de-facto a full time investigation, and later sting operation on Clinton, no one would bother with this “greatest living president” discussion.

    We look back somewhat fondly to GHWB partly because the GOP of that period seems normal when compared to the more fully evolved and malevolent GOP we’re living with today.

    Also, initiating the 1st Gulf War would seem to put the lie to the notion that GWH was less interventionist minded than subsequent presidents. GHW decision to go to war in Iraq, though not engaged for fraudulent reasons, set us on the future path to easily justifying – and selling to the public – future military interventions in that region.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 4

  4. Scott F. says:

    About Jimmy Carter, the less that is said, the better.

    Antle states this because to say even a little bit about Carter destroys his thesis. The Camp David Accords, the appointment of Paul Volcker and Carter’s deliberative approach to the removal of special interest protecting regulations in the transportation and energy sectors… these alone put Carter on an equal footing with either Clinton or Bush I.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 29 Thumb down 2

  5. Grewgills says:

    He is America’s best living Republican president. Of course the competition isn’t fierce.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 1

  6. Franklin says:

    Everybody talks about Clinton’s sex scandals, yet there is no mention here of Iran-Contra …

    Anyway, while I do think the elder Bush was otherwise fairly prudent and a decent ex-president, we must also fault him for producing … his own son.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 2

  7. C. Clavin says:

    “…Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata…”

    That description is exactly opposite today’s Republican Party..which is a religion; indeed, dogmatic beliefs are what defines today’s GOP.

    H.W.’s Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, which was then strengthened in 1993 by Clinton and another budget deal, actually shrank the deficit from 4.7 percent of GDP in 1992 to virtual balance in 1997 and gave us budget surpluses from 1998 to 2001. By…yes…raising taxes and cutting spending.
    Those two deals unleashed the longest period without a recession in recent history…and yet ironically…are completely impossible given today’s Republican Party.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 4

  8. gVOR08 says:

    Annual rate of GDP growth:
    Carter 3.2
    Clinton 3.8
    HW Bush 2.1
    W Bush 1.6
    Wars w/ US service fatalities
    Carter: 0
    Clinton: Bosnia 0
    HW Bush: Gulf I 383
    W Bush: Afghanistan ~630; Iraq ~4200

    And yes, HW’s parenting skills seem to have left something to be desired.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 4

  9. Franklin says:

    @Grewgills: And he’s only been so since Ford died.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  10. JR says:

    @wr:

    Jimmy Carter was one of the worst presidents ever. It’s not a decades smear campaign either, but just Fact accepted by both parties and the American public. You would think Obama would ask Carter for advice occasionally, but he hasn’t reached out to him once. Carter was a disaster. In fact, most current and Ex presidents dislike Carter

    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/jimmy-carter-least-popular-ex-president-among-ex-presidents/

    The man was an epic failure as president. From the Panama Canal treaties, the soviet grain embargo, and the Iran mess, this guy was uniquely unqualified to be president.

    Aside from being a humanitarian, his deeds as Ex-President have been pretty bad. In November 1990, two months after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Carter wrote a letter to the heads of state of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. He urged the countries to drop their support for Bush’s proposed military solution. He has been accused of violating the Logan Act. Jimmy’s not exactly been shy about his Anti Israel views.

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  11. anjin-san says:

    About Jimmy Carter, the less that is said, the better.

    As others have noted, Carter had his moments. And as much as Republicans would like to pretend that the economy was just fine before Carter took office, the fact is that it had been on the rocks for many years prior to his administration.

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  12. beth says:

    Plowing the fields for Jeb? Will we now be subjected to article after article about what a great guy HW was in hopes of erasing our memory of W?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 2

  13. Rob in CT says:

    Bush the Elder was ok. I’ve got no beef with him. Had I been a Democrat during his ’88 election campaign (as opposed to being in middle school), I might think different, having watched Atwater do his thing. The way Bush I governed was basically ok, even though my preferences are different. Also, as others have mentioned, there is Iran-Contra.

    Dunno how you can really rate Bush I as clearly > Clinton or Obama, though. He was a 1-termer and they were 2-termers, which makes comparison difficult. A 1-termer has less time to do things – good or bad.

    Carter… I don’t have the energy. For me, Carter is some guy who was President before my time (I was an infant), so I can look at his time with a certain disinterest. What I see is mixed – certainly not in keeping with the vitriol thrown his way. In that, he seems similar to Bush I.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  14. dazedandconfused says:

    HW paid his dues in government. When he became President he was as prepared as any in recent times. Look at his resume.

    However even he screwed some stuff up. Had we let Saddam know in no uncertain terms we would kick his ass when he massed all those troops on the border? I don’t think the characterization of “no hesitation” is correct. He thought about it for a week and many have said his first inclination was to let it ride. Margret shaming him and Saddam’s not just re-arraigning the princes but instead tossing them all out was taken as a direct threat by the Saudi’s.

    Had he not tried to appoint Bork and then the ridiculous Clarence Thomas? Two sops to a RW that would abandon him anyway?

    He’s a damn good man but lets keep it real. He was still just a man trying to do the toughest job there is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  15. wr says:

    @JR: So perhaps instead of waving nouns around like bloody rags, you might try to articulate some of your issues with Carter. For instance, the Panama Canal treaty, negotiated over 14 years and approved by 68 members of the Senate. Do you think Carter should have sent troops to invade Panama to hold on to the treaty? For how long? And then Iran — the Iranian people rose up against a brutal and corrupt dicator the CIA had installed after overthrowing their democratically elected president. Should Carter have sent in troops to occupy the country? Dropped nuclear bombs on Tehran? And the Soviet grain embargo? Let me guess — you’re one of the yahoos claiming that Obama is soft on Russkies for not imposing harsher sanctions atter the Ukraine business, but when Carter did the same thing in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, you think that makes him icky somehow.

    Of course, he didn’t have the geopolitical wisdom of Reagan, who started selling grain and technology to the Soviets again, but made up for it my giving heavy arms to the Mujahedeen, who then grew into the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2

  16. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Please. How much grovelling is required? No more Bushes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  17. Hal_10000 says:

    I’ve long thought Bush 41 was very-underrated as a President. Besides the thing Doug mentions, there was the decision *not* to go into Iraq after liberating Kuwait, which he was pilloried for but turned out to be a wise decision. There was the budget deal which helped lay the groundwork for the balanced budgets of the late 90′s (along w/ the Clinton budget deals, obviously). The economy was actually in recovery when he left office. He resisted subsidies for businesses and special interests: I remember American business were saying HDTV would never happen without a massive government subsidy and Bush ignored them.

    I don’t know about “greatest living”. But I think he was a fine President, certainly much better and much more conservative than his son.

    As for Jeb … please. No more political dynasties. I’ve had enough, thank you. Maybe if we could turn back time to 2000 and replace W. But not anymore. That’s it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  18. Just Me says:

    I think Bush 41 like most presidents is a mixed bag.

    I do think he gets little credit but should for negotiating and working his way through the Soviet collapse. Because it ended up going rather smoothly we don’t think about the disaster it could have been.

    I think he likely was better and more in his comfort zone with the foreign policy issues than the domestic ones. For a 1 term president he actually had a lot of work in those four years.

    I am also in the “No more Bushes please” camp. I don’t care if Jeb is the most amazing thing since ever-no more Bushes in the White House.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  19. bill says:

    he had a lot of experience, something obama had none of when elected- and boy does it show.
    was not the preferred “charismatic leader” that some voters need to make them feel good about….he also showed that’s it’s tough for one party to keep the white house for more than 12 yrs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 7

  20. M. Bouffant says:

    Two words: Dan Quayle.

    Two more: Vision thing. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  21. george says:

    He was decent.

    I wouldn’t care to rank him or any of the others against each other, because given how different conditions typically are between their times, ranking presidents is always pretty much a test of preferences. For instance, some of the biggest criticisms I have with Obama relate to his expansion of executive powers, but arguably those came out of the 9-11 fallout; Bush Sr. had no need or incentitive to do the same.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  22. anjin-san says:

    @ bill

    something obama had none of when elected- and boy does it show.

    Really? Obama took office in the midst of an massive economic crisis, we really were in danger of plunging into a depression. Now the stock market is fully recovered, the real estate market has recovered, corporate profits are at record levels, and we are in a job recovery, though it is admittedly a weak one. The disastrous Iraq war he inherited is over. Obamacare is working after a rocky start. The health care cost curve is coming under control. The deficit is falling like a stone.

    Can you provide some real world details of how Obama’s inexperience shows? The most glaring example I can think of is that for far too long he believed Republicans would place country over politics. He was quite wrong on that one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  23. JR says:

    @wr: You are in dire need of a history lesson. I won’t waste any more time and words debating an idealogue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 7

  24. wr says:

    @JR: In other words, all you know about Carter is some smears you picked up on Red State. And when you’re challenged on them, you run away whining because someone who actually has a little information called you out.

    Too bad you can’t be bothered with the “history lesson.” I could use a laugh.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  25. Nightrider says:

    What’s with the re-parroting of the 1970s conservative talking point that the Panama Canal treaty was a strategic disaster? It is 2014 now and it seems to have turned out ok.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  26. JR says:

    @wr: I won’t waste many words debating an idealogue and history revisionist. I don’t get my facts from Red State but from books written by historians.
    I suggest you seek knowledge instead of blaming the GOP for “tarnishing” your hero Carter’s legacy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  27. anjin-san says:

    @ JR

    I don’t get my facts from Red State but from books written by historians.

    Instead of getting prissy, why don’t you share the titles/authors of some of these books & let commentators decided for themselves the quality of the historical writing contained therein?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  28. JR says:
  29. anjin-san says:

    @ JR

    Well here is an excerpt from the Library Journal review of The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr.

    Kaufman must conclude that “his was a mediocre presidency and that much of the reason for this was his own doing.”

    This seems to be at odds with your comments:

    Jimmy Carter was one of the worst presidents ever.

    epic failure as president

    And it’s certainly not a universally accepted fact that the Cater Presidency was a disaster. I was around then, as I pointed out above, he inherited the economic problems, and it’s noteworthy that he, not Reagan, appointed Volcker, the man most responsible for turning the economy around in the 80s.

    Sorry, but your comments come off as partisan ranting, not reasoned analysis by someone who is serous about the study of history. I have no problem with the conclusion that Carter’s was a mediocre presidency, that’s the way I remember it. To portray it as an “epic disaster” is simply not correct.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  30. anjin-san says:

    @ JR

    RE: Jimmy Carter by Julian E. Zelizer

    From the Publishers Review comments on the book:

    And in this latest addition to the Am erican Presidents series, Zelizer concurs with other historians’ lukewarm opinion of Carter but adds that many problems were beyond his control.

    The quick read is that your own cites do not support your argument.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  31. JR says:

    @anjin-san:

    We’re all entitled to our opinions. I don’t think anyone’s views have ever been changed by comments section of a political website. Btw, you may want to actually read the book instead of a review of a book.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  32. anjin-san says:

    @ JR

    it’s not a subject of great interest to me, I lived through the Carter years, I don’t need someone else to tell me what I think about Carter as President.

    At any rate, reviewers from respected publications read the books, and reached conclusions that were quite a bit different from yours. Don’t get whiny because you failed at providing supporting evidence for your argument as badly as you failed at making it in the first place.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  33. anjin-san says:

    I don’t think anyone’s views have ever been changed by comments section of a political website.

    Mine have, when presented with a compelling argument.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  34. wr says:

    @JR: I’m not a revisionst, and I don’t need to “seek knowledge.” I have first hand knowledge, as I lived through Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

    Moron.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  35. wr says:

    @anjin-san: Yes, but you are capable of recognizing a compelling argument.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  36. Jr says:

    @wr:

    The moron is the one who defends Jimmy Carter. Knowledge is power. It’s not too late to get an education buddy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  37. Jr says:

    @anjin-san:

    Very unlikely. I’m new to this site but your comments seem to be everywhere on this site. You sure do enjoy seeing your name on every post.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  38. anjin-san says:

    @ Jr

    I like talking politics. If you have a problem with that, it’s your problem, not mine.

    Feel free to try and take some of my arguments down. Based on what I am seeing from you here, I probably don’t have a lot to worry about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  39. wr says:

    @anjin-san: I don’t know. Odds are he’ll call you a moron and tell you to learn history, and that will completely refute any point you might make that’s based on actual knowledge.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  40. Pylon says:

    Methinks JR was challenged to cite books on Carter, scrambled to link to a couple on Amazon, but neglected to see if they supported his views. In other words, caught in a fib.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  41. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @wr: I lived through the same years, and my memories are rather different from yours. They weren’t great years, but compared to 2005-2009, they seem like a golden era.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0