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.
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.”