George H.W. Bush and the extinction of the Country Club Republican

George H.W. Bush on Dec. 18, 1970, shortly after he was appointed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.  (AP Photo/John Duricka, File)George H.W. Bush on Dec. 18, 1970, shortly after he was appointed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.  (AP Photo/John Duricka, File)

With the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush, the Country Club Republican has at last gone extinct. Also known as Rockefeller Republicans, they were center-right on economic issues and tended to hold liberal views on social issues, if they held views on social issues at all. It was not surprising when Mr. Bush revealed that he had crossed party lines to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

But this extinct wing of the Republican Party had another element: It was dominated by WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). The acronym is incomplete. President Richard Nixon was white, of English heritage, and Protestant, but he would not have qualified. He was a self-made man from the West Coast who attended public schools; a WASP was born into a more exclusive club.

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The WASP establishment once dominated the political and economic life of the United States. It was the closest thing we had to an aristocracy: wealth and privilege based upon lineage. By the middle of the 20th century, WASPs held all but one of the Supreme Court seats and dominated the State Department, the C.I.A., and myriad other government institutions and positions that required appointment, rather than election.

The WASP establishment once dominated the political and economic life of the United States. It was the closest thing we had to an aristocracy.

By the end of George H.W. Bush’s first and only term as president in 1992, the upward mobility of other ethnic groups, especially Irish and Italian Catholics had helped to end this dominance. The Ivy League schools, and the Northeast boarding schools that fed them, had dropped their restrictions on Catholics and Jews. And the wealth created by the 1980s stock market, as well as the burgeoning tech industry, had outmatched “old money.”

Born into a politically prominent New England family, George H.W. Bush could trace his ancestry to the last governor of Plymouth Colony in the 17th century. His father, Prescott Bush, represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. He prepped at Phillips Academy and, after serving as a naval aviator in World War II, graduated from Yale University: superb WASP credentials.

After serving two terms as a congressman from his adopted state of Texas, Mr. Bush began a cursus honorum of appointed positions that were the hallmark of his caste: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China and director of the C.I.A. But by the time he was ready to make a bid for the presidency in 1980, the political landscape in which he grew up had changed. More conservative forces within the Republican Party had coalesced around a former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, and it was clear that the Rockefeller Republicans’ days were numbered. Mr. Bush pulled out of the presidential race but was invited by Reagan to join the Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee, the last olive branch offered to the old guard.

By 1988, when he ran again for president, everything Mr. Bush represented seemed to be a liability.

By 1988, when he ran again for president, everything Mr. Bush represented seemed to be a liability. He seemed “elitist” and out of touch with the common folk, and the new Reagan Republicans were suspicious of his conservative credentials. In short, he was expected to be something he was not. He was a Rockefeller Republican expected to be Reagan’s ideological successor, he was a WASP expected to be more down-to-earth and he was a foreign-policy expert expected to focus on a souring economy. Though leading the country though its last successful war, and skillfully managing the decline of the Soviet Union, Mr. Bush broke an explicit campaign promise not to raise taxes. He did this for the now politically unforgivable reason that he thought it was right.

Much has been written on the disappearance of WASPs from political life, and most of it bears the subtext “good riddance.” Many remember them as elitist, exclusionary and resistant to change. But this depiction does not do them justice. They were largely polite, civil, civic-minded, scrupulously modest and raised with a strong sense of noblesse oblige. Their motto could be “to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” The ultimate test for the WASP was putting one’s country before one’s private interest, as when Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned from his office rather than obey Richard Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor. Or when C.I.A. Director William Colby (a Catholic but born into the WASP milieu on his father’s side) was honest about the agency’s sordid past in public congressional hearings because it offended his sense of duty and character to lie.

Perhaps I am painting too sympathetic a picture of this class. Yet it is easy for me to believe that President Bush raised taxes for the same reason that he took on the thankless job of Republican Party chairman during the Watergate scandal, for the same reason why he agreed to head the C.I.A. after its public humiliation over dubious practices, and for the same reason why he, alone among Republicans, stood on the tarmac to say goodbye to the deeply unpopular Democratic President Lyndon Johnson when he departed office in 1969: because he thought it was the right thing to do.

There is a story from Mr, Bush’s youth that helps explain this mindset. He once bragged to his mother that he had scored three goals in a soccer match. Her response: “That’s nice, George. But how did the team do?”

A version of this article was originally published in The Jesuit Post, under the title “A Compassionate Conservative.”

John Placette
1 week 2 days ago

Self deleted.

J. Calpezzo
1 week 2 days ago

Bush's support of Hillary had nothing to do with social issues. It had everything to do with Trump trashing his sons W. and Jeb. Bush 41 was a conflicted soul. A liberal/moderate Republican at heart, he sold his soul to Reagan's anti-government mantra. His political class ceased to exist after Reagan. Some say he was was a wimp. For the rest of us there is a cautionary tale: stay true to your true self. Bush knew his true self, but political expediency got the best of him. Remember Willie Horton.

J. Calpezzo
1 week 2 days ago

Bush's support of Hillary had nothing to do with social issues. It had everything to do with Trump trashing his sons W. and Jeb. Bush 41 was a conflicted soul. A liberal/moderate Republican at heart, he sold his soul to Reagan's anti-government mantra. His political class ceased to exist after Reagan. Some say he was was a wimp. For the rest of us there is a cautionary tale: stay true to your true self. Bush knew his true self, but political expediency got the best of him. Remember Willie Horton.

Stan Zorin
1 week 2 days ago

The words : "scrupulously modest and raised with a strong sense of noblesse oblige" and "[his] motto could be “to whom much has been given, much will be expected" " can in no way be applied to G. Bush Senior.
George H.W. Bush was a devoted activist in the cause of the New World Order. His membership of Luciferian Freemasonic lodges, particularly of "illuminated" lodge 'Skull and Bones', testifies to his ideological conviction and activity.
In Ukraine they are not going to forget, ever, his threats to the Ukrainians to not break up the communist Soviet Union - which was the jail of nations.
He issued similar threats to the Croats when the state Yugoslavia was disintegrating. A Freemason in the position of power always suppresses the freedom of nations.
And let us not forget his involvement in the murder of President J.F. Kennedy.
His directorship of CIA deserves, as a reward, him sliding one circle of Hell lower.
If I were to make a film in which a devil appears I would have cast George H.W. Bush in the role.
May he not rest in peace.
[I tried to be 'charitable' but with the devils it is difficult].

arthur mccaffrey
1 week 2 days ago

I never knew Lyndon Johnson was "deeply unpopular" --I voted for the guy. And compared to the quality of presidential candidates today, LBJ looks like Lincoln. Likewise Nelson Rockefeller or John Lindsay---like GHWB they all had a touch of class about them--which is an epithet sadly missing from descriptions of the current occupant of the White House.

John Walton
1 week 2 days ago

In his era, the Nicomachean Ethic was lived as lectured.

Aristarchus French
1 week 2 days ago

Interesting, Pat Buchanan penned an identical piece 3 months ago. The old GOP is gone, its Trumps GOP now, like it or not.

Andrea Campana
1 week 2 days ago

Yes, Bush did want to do what was "right" in terms of raising taxes in order to reduce the federal budget deficit, but ultimately he was a big spender. He wanted to reverse the social safety net spending cuts that occurred under Reagan (who sought higher defense spending in order to pose a threat to the Soviet Union end the Cold War), so he needed higher revenue. I'm not sure I agree with J. Calpezzo below, who says "he sold his soul to Reagan's anti-government mantra." In abandoning his campaign pledge, he tentatively sought, or floated the idea of, higher federal excise taxes on gasoline, alcohol, and tobacco; an oil import fee, elimination of the deduction for certain types of borrowing such as that for leveraged corporate buyouts widespread at the time; taxation of employer-provided benefits; higher fees for national parks. But he signaled that he did not want to increase taxes on income, or reduce the personal exemption, or repeal or postpone indexation of taxes to inflation. Nor did he want to increase taxes on Social Security.

Christine Stander
1 week 2 days ago

Whatever does this “article” have to do with the mission of America Magazine? I won’t dignify further than a question. I thought I was reading an opinion on Facebook with droning on comments that followed. You can do better, America Magazine.

Toby Gillis
1 week 1 day ago

How long have you been a reader of America, Christine? It's mission, stated or not, but apparent and obvious, is the furtherance of far left liberals values and politics/politicians.

Mike Macrie
1 week ago

America Magazine is a Jesuit Publication. The Jesuits is a Center Left Order of the Catholic Faith. There are many more Center Right Catholic Publication Sites that you can visit if that is your preference of belief. The America Magazine gives a voice to those who believe that Liberal Voices should be heard. Remember what Pope Francis said when Addressing Congress, “ The three most Americans that I admire are Martin Luther King, Dorthy Day, and Thomas Merton “. These three people who were all Liberals in their day, contributed as much as Conservatives in the Church for a better world.

C Walter Mattingly
1 week 1 day ago

Well said, Mr Gibson.

Randal Agostini
1 week 1 day ago

Ditto to Christine Stander, but I have a question. Am I the only one who detects an overabundance of hypocrisy I the adulation of George HW Bush? I did not notice this during his administration and I wonder whether it is a sort of silent admonishment to the current tenant in the White House.
I am not a born American - I chose to come to America and become an American for what it stood for. I just wish that more Americans knew how fortunate they are. In this climate - the last position I would want to hold would be President.

Toby Gillis
1 week 1 day ago

No you aren't the only one, but this was expected. Look at he way they gushed over the man they formerly trashed as a war monger and mean spirited right wing ideologue (John McCain). It is not silent admonition in other places, such as CNN and MSNBC, where the praises of Bush 41 are closely followed by comparisons to President Trump. Even Bush 43 is becoming their next newly worshiped Republican. If any one in any way opposes Trump, that person is a new found, or will be changed into, a leftard media darling. Get used to it.

Ellen B
1 week 1 day ago

Make no mistake, some of the things he did as President & to become President were absolutely wrong (Willie Horton, his involvement in Iran Contra). They led to him being a one-term President. However, his military service & his handling of the fall of the Berlin wall was exemplary. And his behavior regarding respect to others who held the office of President, especially when held in contrast to today, is something to aspire to once again.

Randal Agostini
1 week 1 day ago

Ditto to Christine Stander, but I have a question. Am I the only one who detects an overabundance of hypocrisy in the adulation of George HW Bush? I did not notice this during his administration and I wonder whether it is a sort of silent admonishment to the current tenant in the White House.
I am not a born American - I chose to come to America and become an American for what it stood for. I just wish that more Americans knew how fortunate they are. In this climate - the last position I would want to hold would be President.

Elaine Eng
1 week 1 day ago

Wow, tells us what you really think. I feel as though you are holding back!

Carlos Orozco
1 week 1 day ago

War criminal that lied his country into the first Iraq war. Remember the testimony in Congress about Kuwaiti babies dying after being taken out of incubators by Iraqi soldiers? BS.
May the victims of GHB rest in peace.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqiq8P8dRtY

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