He’s being celebrated today as the embodiment of civility, the outgoing President who left a warm and gracious letter for the man who’d defeated him—with a few discordant mentions of the nasty campaign he waged to win the office four years earlier. He’s remembered as a transitional figure, presiding with skillful restraint over the end of the Cold War, a Republican whose journey from Connecticut to Texas symbolized the political journey of the party as a whole.
But there’s another way to remember George Herbert Walker Bush, one that we often miss amid the aristocratic details of his biography—and one that says a great deal about how much politics has changed since his ascent. Bush survived enough threats to his political survival to earn the nickname Bill Clinton claimed for himself after his second-place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire primary: “the comeback kid.”
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We tend to remember presidents for how they won. Bush was perhaps most notable for just how many times he was defeated—over and over, in his career—and how he built his political legacy by coming back.
For most of his public life, Bush was burdened by privilege. Our political culture prefers, or claims to prefer, its leaders born in a log cabin—rising to greatness from hardscrabble origins (though candidates named Roosevelt, Kennedy, Rockefeller, Romney and Trump seem to have managed reasonably well). Bush’s father was a senator and a banker; he had Yale roots reaching deep into the 19th century. Everything about Bush—from the nickname “Poppy” to the Andover education to the WASP aristocracy of his family and his wife’s — seemed to validate the picture drawn by Texas politician Jim Hightower at the 1988 Democratic Convention, of Bush as “a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”
If Bush was born on third base, though, he didn’t relax on it. Hightower’s dismissive observation begins to look facile when you measure it against Bush’s resume: the youngest aviator in the Navy, shot down in wartime over the Pacific, surviving for hours on life raft before being rescued by a American submarine. And the image of a coddled heir to wealth and status doesn’t blend in with the experience of a young father losing his three-year-old daughter to leukemia.
And in political terms, it ignores the fact that Bush survived a series of defeats, any one of which might have ended his career, and did so with a determination that led him to embrace some decidedly “uncivil” means.
In 1964, Bush ran for the United States Senate in Texas against incumbent Ralph Yarborough, whose liberalism put him on one side of a perennial civil war in the Democratic Party. There was reason to think that Bush could win the votes of the state’s more conservative Democrats, whose champion was Governor John Connally. Bush appealed to such voters by opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964; but with Texan Lyndon Johnson at the head of the ticket, and its Barry Goldwater as the GOPs sacrificial lamb, Bush lost by a double-digit margin.
Six years later, with two terms in the House of Representative behind him, Bush took another run at the Senate, assuming he’d have a clear shot at the liberal Yarborough, whose opposition to the Vietnam War and strong civil-rights stand made him an inviting target in a southern state. But instead, he found himself facing a much more conservative Democrat, Lloyd Bentsen, who’d ousted Yarborough in the primary, and went on to beat Bush by a comfortable margin. “Two-time loser” is not the most appealing label for a politician, which helps explain why Bush spent the next decade in a series of appointed posts, from UN Ambassador to director of the CIA. But it’s his stint as chair of the Republican National Committee that suggests a unique ability to survive potentially fatal blows.
Bush became GOP chair just as the Watergate scandal was beginning to dominate the political landscape. He stayed as chair through Nixon’s resignation and remained a staunch defender of Nixon, urging him to stand firm even after the president ordered the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in the “Saturday night massacre” of 1973. (When the damning White House tapes were released in August , 1974, he finally urged Nixon to resign—privately.)
In the wake of the scandal, Republicans suffered a massive political defeat, losing 49 seats in the House and four in the Senate. Some of Nixon’s most visible loyalists, like New Jersey Rep. Charles Sandman, saw their political careers ended. But Bush escaped political accountability, because he held no elective office. Instead, President Ford named him to head the Central Intelligence Agency, burnishing his resume far from the political battlefield.
In his first run for the White House in 1980, his win in the Iowa caucuses was followed by a landslide loss in New Hampshire, putting Ronald Reagan on a glide path to the nomination. He seemed doomed to a life in the shadows of power; until a last-minute effort to put ex-President Ford as Reagan’s running mate collapsed, and. reluctant Reagan turned to Bush for his veep. (Bush readily accepted the terms of the offer, casting aside his position on abortion and tax cuts).
Eight years later, Bush had to struggle with the notion that he was a figure of no fixed political star, a “lap dog” who was struggling to fight “the wimp factor.” In the Iowa caucuses he finished not just second, but a dismal third, behind Sen. Bob Dole and the televangelist Pat Robertson. He was proclaimed a candidate on life support. But, as Reagan had done to him in New Hampshire, so Bush did to Dole, casting him as weak on tax cuts. When he won the nomination, he again found himself in the back seat; polls showed him trailing Michael Dukakis by substantial margins. But a well-crafted convention speech, and a nasty campaign that painted Dukakis as soft on crime and insufficiently patriotic, helped to a near-landslide win. His scorched-earth campaign strategy foretold a great deal about modern politics: there was the racialized crime issue, embodied by a felon named Willie Horton who committed crimes while out of jail on a furlough program, and the “patriotism” issue, centered on Dukakis’ refusal to compel teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance—an odd fit for the man whose father, Sen. Prescott Bush, was a sharp critic of Joseph McCarthy.
In that sense, it would be a mistake, or to least incomplete, to remember Bush as “the last moderate Republican” or “a link to a more civil political era.”
Beneath that patina was a tough, dogged competitor, one who only became more hardened and committed in defeat. But in that sense he did embody something important about politics: He was of a time where political figures would not be consigned to minor league status by defeat.
It wasn’t just Bush: It was a time when a Nixon, a Humphrey, a Reagan, a Dole, could survive as a major contender, and win another chance at the brass ring, if not the ring itself. Bush could even survive the loss of the Oval Office, and the dreaded one-term-president status, to be celebrated now as an agile diplomat and a voice for a “kinder, gentler” politics that in fact he was more than willing to put aside in the heat of battle.
And if nothing else, his reputation has been burnished by the man who now occupies the office. If you try to imagine the letter a defeated Donald Trump would leave for his successor, and how much warmth and grace it might contain, it’s not hard to see why Bush has once again found redemption from loss.