My first foray into Republican politics was in the winter of 1980, when George H. W. Bush was battling Ronald Reagan for the presidential nomination. At the invitation of Marty Flynn, a local Republican and an old Central Intelligence Agency chum, Mr. Bush made a whistle stop on Cape Cod en route to the New Hampshire primary. Well, it wasn’t literally a whistle stop, but rather a quick speech at the Red Coach Grille near Barnstable Municipal Airport. My dad was a friend of Marty’s and a fan of Mr. Bush and, with his 8-year-old son in tow, he set out in our yellow AMC Pacer to meet the future president.
I don’t remember anything that Mr. Bush said that day, but I do recall some of the tidbits I picked up from the buzz that filled the room: “He’s a family man, a true American hero,” they said, “a guy who can put the country back on track.” The “family man” talking point was in part a veiled critique of Mr. Reagan, who was divorced. The United States had never elected a divorced man as president, and many people were asking whether we could or even should. In any event, later that year we settled the question by electing the man who, with Mr. Bush as his vice president, inaugurated the Reagan Revolution.
This was all on my mind when I visited the George Bush Library and Museum last week in College Station, Tex., part of my effort to visit every presidential library before I shuffle off to the big Buffalo in the sky. Regrettably, but understandably, Mr. Bush’s trip to the Red Coach Grille does not feature in his library and museum, nor does much of anything else from his unsuccessful run for the 1980 nomination. What’s interesting, however, is how the museum’s narrative is built on the very same themes he stressed that day on Cape Cod: duty, family, country. Is this a singular example of consistent political messaging across three-plus decades, or is it simply an accurate reflection of Mr. Bush’s true character?
I suspect that it’s somehow both. To my knowledge, no one has ever really called his character into question. Sure, his worldview stems from an old-fashioned (some would say naïve) way of thinking about the world, one in which faith, know-how and neighborliness can tackle even the toughest problems: “There is a God and He is good, and his love, while free, has a self-imposed cost: We must be good to one another,” he told us in 1988.
On the other hand, Mr. Bush has made some very questionable public choices, about war and peace and right and wrong, especially his decision to launch a barely credible, unrelentingly negative assault on his opponent, Michael Dukakis, during the 1988 presidential campaign. That wasn’t very neighborly. It also helped to usher in our contemporary slash-and-burn politics, and it should be included in any discussion of Mr. Bush’s public character.
No one should travel to College Station, however, expecting to see a balanced assessment of the politics of the Willie Horton ad. Fair enough. It’s his library, and it reflects Mr. Bush’s self-understanding. Still, he must have a regret or two, even about his public life. Why not share it with us? It might help us to understand better the people who govern our country. It would help us to see that while politicians like Mr. Bush might be decent folk, they are just as imperfect as the rest of us, and we should be reluctant, therefore, to invest in any one of them our messianic hopes, whether they originate with the duty-family-country crowd or with the so-called liberal elites. It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. As Dennis O’Brien writes in this issue: “The temptation of conservatism is that of wandering off into outmoded historical formulae that are as distant from living reality as the liberal’s utopian projects.”