Principle over Politics? The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview
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Discussant: Karen Hosier

As White House reporter, I covered the Bush administration and parts of Reagan, and then I went on to Capitol Hill to cover the fallout, we might say, after Clinton was elected. And so I’ve seen this process unfold over a lot of years, and watched them wrangle over this issue. I’m not going to take a position about whether this was necessarily a good deal or a bad deal, but just offer some observations as a reporter.

Clearly, Bush’s handling of the budget with a tax increase was disastrous to his own political prospects, but I think it is fair to say that the deal itself made an important contribution to the subsequent deficit cutting and probably paved the way for the good economic news that Clinton is enjoying today.

It is striking to me—I guess we’re all seeing it, looking back at this conference—that there’s two things that stand out about the Bush presidency: the Persian Gulf War, of course, and this budget deal. In fact, the budget deal is getting more attention so far than the war, from what I can tell. And those two events showed us two very different sides of George Bush.

As commander-in-chief leading this dramatic force into the Gulf, he was confident, he was strong, he was a hero. After the war, I can remember we were in Bermuda for some conference, and he walks into a restaurant for dinner. The whole crowd stands up and gives him a standing ovation. It was incredibly exciting. This wasn’t even the United States. And then coming home to the military bases, and all the people coming out—it was just a terrific experience.

Then you contrast that with the budget negotiations, and I think part of the way Bush performed there was his own insecurity, his own doubts that I think we can see were bred by the dissension and the division going on within his staff arguing with each other, and maybe to some degree competing with each other. The two low points that I remember in particular were, once in the fall of 1990, Bush was out jogging—I think he was on a campaign, or just a political trip somewhere. But he was jogging in the middle of the day, and they always have a pool of reporters that is with him wherever he goes, just to take pictures and so forth. And there had been a lot of back-and-forth about the tax cuts and what he was and wasn’t going to do, and he was just so disgusted and frustrated with it, he finally said, “Read my hips!” and pointed to his derrière. That picture was everywhere, all over CNN all day long, and the front page of every newspaper in the country, probably, the next day. And it just—not only did it remind everybody that he had broken his tax pledge; it showed a sort of contempt for his own promise. And so that was just a man who was tired and frustrated, but it was a very low point and I think helped contribute to what happened to him.

I would argue—unlike Jim and perhaps others in the administration—that a second sort of PR low point on this for President Bush was, during the campaign, in

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