In my recent blog entry on presidential qualifications I remarked that the pre-presidency of George H W Bush rivaled that of Hillary Clinton today.
While true, it underscored something that’s been nagging at me for nearly 30 years. If you look at his resume in the box to the right of the preamble of the Wikipedia page about him, you see something very interesting: a lot of different posts for relatively short terms, at least until he was elected Vice President in 1980. Indeed, by the time he was elected Vice President, he had lost as many elections (US Senate in 1970, republican presidential nomination in 1980) as he had won (US congress in 1966 and 1968). From a pure electoral history, his resume was quite thin. Add in the truism that people don’t actually vote for the vice presidential candidate on a ticket, and you can discount the elections of 1980 and 1984 as being not so much victories for him as they are victories for Reagan.
Bush was the first sitting Vice President to be elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836, although Nixon does deserve the honor of being in between the two if you take out the word “sitting” and add in a footnote about not rising to the presidency following the death of the president. (Take out the footnote and you can also add Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson.)
The path to the presidency is usually through elective office, not appointments to powerful positions. Or, if not elective office, then career military service, usually after attainment of the position of general or admiral. While Bush did have some elective office experience, it was pretty meager. He served two terms in the House of Representatives in the minority party in both terms. While this was before the so-called “Hastert Rule” which basically strips the minority party of having any say in what will get voted on, it still doesn’t wield a whole lot of clout, politically. (At least Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) was a senator…)
Bush’s path definitely was quite atypical by most standards.
So when Nixon, and then Ford, nominated Bush for some very powerful positions, what was the basis of these appointments? The answer seems fairly obvious: he was the son of a powerful senator. Indeed, a mere four years passed between Prescott Bush’s retirement and George’s first election. One wonders if the death of the father was at least partially a basis of the nominations of the son.
George H W Bush had — and still has — enjoyed an exceptional amount of privilege in his life. It led him to the highest office in the land at a pivotal point in world history. I do find it interesting that, when future historians look at his term and his legacy, they’re likely to see it as mostly unremarkable. His presidency can be summed up with the first Iraq war, most-favored nation trading status with China, and NAFTA. And maybe Manuel Noriega. He’s not likely to be viewed as a major player with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union.
That seems fairly consistent with the fact that he struggled with what he called the “vision thing” for why he even wanted to be president.
And that same privilege is what led two of his children to seek the presidency, one who achieved it and one whose failure to achieve it could be the stuff of a Greek tragedy.
They don’t need to apologize for their privilege but nobody can deny that their privilege probably doesn’t guide them to the wisest decisions.
This family should be the stuff of textbooks.