Late on the night of January 20, 1989, I walked out of Dan’s Cafe—a dive bar in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, DC—after imbibing a few or five or six bottles of Rolling Rock. Clutching my long black overcoat around me, I started to cross 18th street (likely to get a bite to eat, as my apartment on 16th, just south of Columbia, was a few blocks to the east). The headphones of my Walkman covered my ears; I think I was listening to Depeche Mode.
I did not see the car until it was practically upon me. Helpful witnesses later said it was black—or maybe blue or perhaps green. Whatever color it was, it knocked me to the ground without stopping; perhaps because I had no time to stiffen in panic, I only separated my right shoulder.
Earlier that day, I had watched the sitting Vice President sworn in as the 41st president of the United States. In his acceptance speech the previous August, the then-Vice-President had called for a “kinder and gentler nation.”
So naturally, as I lay on the street unable to move, convinced cars would start knocking me between lanes like a human pinball, my first thought was, “So much for kinder and gentler.”
George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Friday night at the age of 94, exemplified a vanishing strain of self-effacing, self-sacrificing American patriotism: son of a United States Senator, heroic Navy pilot in World War II, Yale baseball team captain (light-hitting, solid defensive left-handed first baseman), successful Texas oilman, two-term member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) before losing the 1970 United States Senate election in Texas to Lloyd Bentsen (who would resurface as an opponent 18 years later), Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (where, unbeknownst to his family, my late father-in-law worked). Bush then served as Vice President of the United States from January 20, 1981 to January 20, 1989—at which point he ascended to the Presidency, the first sitting Vice President to do so since Martin Van Buren in 1837. He was also father to two sons who served a combined 22 years as Florida governor, Texas governor and president. With few exceptions, he tackled these activities with grace, dignity and the desire to serve his country to the best of his considerable abilities.
Because it is one of my primary passions, I write a great deal about American politics on this site, mostly through a data-analytic lens. Inevitably, I referred to President Bush 41 in a number of posts. To honor the memory of this American hero—with whom I rarely agreed, but whom I came greatly to respect—I will tell his story through those posts.
The first inkling I had that someone named George Bush existed came when I was in 8th grade:
In March 1980, a woman named Barbara Bush, whose husband George I vaguely knew was running for the Republican presidential nomination, addressed the student body at Bala Cynwyd Middle School (see Philadelphia Inquirer story below). I remember little of what she said (other than being impressed this engaging woman was speaking to us at all), though I understood she was trying to get us to convince our parents to vote for her husband. That appearance may have helped, because on April 22, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Herbert Walker Bush beat former California governor Ronald Reagan in the Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary, 50 to 43%. Despite that victory, Bush lost the nomination to Reagan, becoming the latter’s vice-presidential running mate.
Bush fit my home state’s Republican Party well in 1980:
Back home, Pennsylvania was narrowly electing a series of liberal-to-moderate Republicans who, again, I admired without always agreeing with them: Senator John Heinz in 1976 (even as [Jimmy] Carter won Pennsylvania by 2.7 percentage points), Governor Richard Thornburgh in 1978, and Senator Arlen Specter in 1980. Heinz easily won reelection twice before dying in a plane crash in 1991 at the age of 52. Like most Pennsylvanians, I was deeply saddened by the loss of this good man. […] In 1986, I voted for pro-choice Republican Bill Scranton for governor.
I followed the 1988 presidential election in three places. First, I watched the primaries and caucuses in the living room of the off-campus apartment I shared with two other Yale seniors in New Haven, CT. I touched briefly on Bush’s nomination here:
Since 1980, Republicans have tended to nominate the runner-up from the previous contested nomination (Ronald Reagan 1980, G.H.W. Bush 1988, Bob Dole 1996, [John] McCain 2008, Mitt Romney 2012), implying McCain would have been the prohibitive front-runner had he run in 2004 [in an alternate history in which Vice President Al Gore wins the 2000 presidential election].
Next, I watched the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in my mother’s condominium in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley, where I was spending the summer; driving home along Hagys Ford Road one day that August, I heard on the radio that Bush had selected Indiana Senator Dan Quayle to be his running mate.
Finally, I watched the fall election in that Adams Morgan apartment. At an event at the Brookings Institute, where I worked, a few days before the election, I was one of only two people in the audience to raise a hand to the question, “Who here thinks [Massachusetts Governor Michael] Dukakis will win the election?”
Had I listened to my future self, I would have better seen what was coming:
From 1968 through 1988 it was the Republicans who had an even-more-impregnable “red wall,” with 22 states voting for the Republican presidential nominee in six consecutive presidential elections and 13 other states doing so in five of them. The Republicans won the White House in five of these six elections, averaging 417 EV [electoral votes].
Despite not wanting Bush to win, however, I was pleasantly surprised just one day later:
The 1988 presidential campaign was so banal that the Washington Post did not endorse either Bush or Michael Dukakis. Bush’s campaign sank to some particularly ugly depths (Willie Horton, flag-burning, demonizing liberals). The afternoon after Bush won, however, I watched President-elect Bush introduced James Baker as his nominee for Secretary of State. My surprised reaction was “wow, the governing Bush looks like an entirely different cat.” Other Bush Administration picks like Jack Kemp (HUD), Dick Darman (OMB), Thornburgh (Justice), Liddy Dole (Labor), and Brent Scowcroft (National Security Advisor) signaled to me a mature, less-ideological approach to governing.
I watched Bush introduce Baker on a television set just outside my Brookings office, and I followed the Cabinet selections in the New York Times and Washington Post, which I would read each morning over my coffee and bowl of Nut’n’Honey cereal. As for the morning I read excitedly about Kemp’s nomination…well, a gentleman does not kiss and tell.
I have written about the results of the 1988 presidential election in multiple contexts. First, there was the simple—and unusual—fact that Bush’s win marked a third consecutive Republican presidential victory.
Still, it is important to keep in mind that the 2016 U.S. presidential election took place after eight years with one party (Democrats) occupying the White House and no incumbent running. Voters often look to change White House control in these elections: prior to 2016, of the six such elections starting with 1960, the party not occupying the White House had won five of them (1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2008). The exception was 1988, when Republican nominee George H. W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis by 7.7 percentage points and 315 EV.
Second, I wrote this passage in the context of validating my measure (3W-RDM) of how Democratic or Republican state is, relative to the nation:
And had Mondale lost by “only” 7.7 percentage points—as Democrat Michael Dukakis would to Republican George H. W. Bush in 1988—he would also have theoretically won the combined 53 EV of New York (36), Wisconsin (11) and West Virginia (6), boosting his total to 126 EV (better, but still 144 EV shy of the 270 needed to win the White House).
Still, that is close to the 112 EV Dukakis won in 1988. As the purple-inked states on this beautiful hand-drawn map show, Dukakis lost seven states (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, Vermont, Missouri, New Mexico) totaling 125 EV by smaller margins (2.1-5.0 percentage points; mean=3.3) than he did nationally. Had Dukakis lost the election by just 2.7 points, he would theoretically have won 237 EV, only 33 shy of the necessary 270.
What I did not know then, however, was that Bush’s 1988 victory would mark the beginning of the end of a singular American political era:
Four years earlier, however, G. H. W. Bush had won 53.4% of the popular vote against Democrat Michael Dukakis (45.6%), winning 40 states and 426 EV; Bush beat Dukakis 53.9 to 46.1% in the two-party vote. Bush’s near-landslide victory (in the Electoral College, anyway) meant that Republicans would control the White House for a third consecutive four-year term.
In the six presidential elections from 1968 through 1988 (Table 1), Republicans won the presidency five times, four times by landslides (1972, 1980, 1984) or near-landslides (1988). The one Democratic victor was Jimmy Carter in 1976, in the wake of Republican President Richard Nixon’s Watergate-related resignation in August 1974, Nixon’s pardon by his successor (Gerald Ford) and various Ford gaffes. Still, Carter only managed to beat Ford by 2.1 percentage points (50.1 to 48.0%) and 57 EV (297-240); Ford actually won more states: 27 to 23 (plus DC). In fact, had Ford flipped 5,559 votes in Ohio (25 EV) and 7,232 votes in Mississippi (7 EV)—just 12,791 votes out of 81,540,780 cast, he would have won 272 EV and held on to the presidency.
Overall in those six presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 42.9% of the popular vote (45.1% of the two-party vote), victories in nine states (plus DC) and 113.0 EV. The White House essentially “belonged” to the Republicans during this period.
During the same time period, however, Democrats controlled the House and held a majority of governorships. They controlled the Senate for 18 of 24 years, excepting only 1981-87. Following the 13 even-numbered elections from 1968 through 1992, Democrats averaged majorities of all votes cast for Senate, House and governor, for an average of 54.5 Senate seats, 262.1 House seats and 31.0 governor’s mansions.
In other words, from 1968 through 1992, while Republicans held a near lock on the White House, Democrats controlled Congress (both Houses for 20 years) and a majority of governor’s mansions. One interpretation is that voters preferred Republicans in the White House to conduct foreign policy (i.e., fight the Cold War) and preferred Democrats to manage domestic affairs (i.e., protect entitlements).
As for the single Bush (41) Administration, I wrote little beyond this:
Clearly, history is not always predictive. The president’s party lost an average of 13.8 House seats in the four qualifying midterm elections from 1962-1982, yet President George H.W. Bush’s Republicans only lost 8 House seats in 1990, while President Bush was still receiving plaudits for the first Gulf War and the end of the Cold War. [emphasis added]
I also obliquely referenced the event that continues to define that Administration more than any other.
In a subsequent post, I will examine the defining events of 1998 through 1994 in more detail, moving from then-Vice-President G. H. W. Bush’s acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention through the wildly successful (for Republicans) 1994 midterm elections.
In his August 1988 acceptance speech, Bush presented a scenario in which the Democratic-majority Congress would keep asking him to raise taxes, and he would refuse each time, finally insisting, “Read my lips: no new taxes!” However, facing a ballooning budget deficit, Bush was forced to relent (a decision that likely cost him reelection, even as it paved the way for the budget surpluses of the late 1990s); on November 5, 1990, he signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990. This compromise budget bill included a modest tax increase on the incomes of the wealthiest Americans, leading conservative commentator Pat Buchanan to challenge Bush in the 1992 New Hampshire Primary.
Incidentally, the events I was going to examine in that never-written post are thoroughly examined in this engaging new book by the indefatigable Steve Kornacki.
History shows that President Bush might have a tough time winning reelection even if he had not broken his “no new taxes” pledge”:
The 1856 US presidential election was the first in which a Democratic nominee (James Buchanan) faced a Republican nominee (John C. Fremont); Buchanan won. Since then there have been nine elections (1880, 1884, 1908, 1912, 1932, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1992) in which the party controlling the White House sought a fourth, fifth or sixth consecutive term; that party won only four (44%) of those elections.
And, in fact:
On Tuesday, November 3, 1992, [Arkansas Governor Bill] Clinton captured 43.0% of the popular vote cast for president, 5.6 percentage points more than G. H. W. Bush (37.4%) and 24.0 percentage points more than Independent H. Ross Perot (19.0%). Considering only votes cast for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates (“two-party vote”), Clinton beat Bush 53.5 to 46.5%.
Clinton also won 32 states, plus the District of Columbia (DC), for a total of 370 electoral votes (EV); Bush received only 168 EV.
In other words, in just four years, Democrats had increased their share of the two-party popular vote by 7.4 percentage points, flipped 22 states from Democratic to Republican, and increased their EV total from 112 to 370.
That is an astonishing turnaround.
Republicans blamed Bill Clinton for breaking their iron grip on the White House, and they have been punishing him (and his wife) for it ever since.
Just like that, a new American political era emerged:
With the elections of 1992 and 1994, the Democratic and Republican Parties switched governing roles. The Democratic Party went from being primarily a Congressional and state-house party to primarily a national (i.e., White House) party, while the Republican Party went in the opposite direction.
In the seven presidential elections from 1992 through 2016, Democrats won the presidential popular vote six of seven times (despite only winning the Electoral College—and thus the White House—four times), the exception being 2004, when Republican George W. Bush won reelection by 2.4 percentage points (50.7 to 48.3%) over Democrat John Kerry, capturing 286 EV to Kerry’s 251. […] Overall in those seven presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 48.7% of the popular vote (52.0% of the two-party vote), victories in 23.7 states (plus DC) and 313.4 EV.
Meanwhile, since January 1995, Democrats have only controlled the House and held a majority of governorships for four years (2007-11), while controlling the Senate for only nine-plus years (May 2001-January 2003, 2007-15). Following the 12 even-numbered elections from 1994 through 2016, while Democrats managed rough parity in Senate votes, they lost the overall vote for House and governor, earning an average 48.3 Senate seats, 208.7 House seats and 20.7 governor’s mansions.
This switch was accompanied by a drastic makeover of the Republican Party.
I plan to argue in a later post that something began to go haywire with the Republican Party right around Bush’s failed reelection campaign in 1992 and the subsequent Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994. I now feel that the party—with a few possible exceptions like Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker—has become completely unhinged.
That President George Herbert Walker Bush really was a different kind of cat is best illustrated by the fact he pointedly invited President Donald J. Trump to his funeral, despite no love being lost between the two Republican presidents. Bush simply believed this is how things are supposed to be done.
What so fascinates me about the 1948 presidential election is that while Harry Truman is my favorite president, the more I learn about Tom Dewey, particularly his prosecutorial efforts in the mid-1930s, the more intrigued I am. Love Truman though I do, I think Dewey would have been a solid president, not dissimilar to Eisenhower or the underrated first George Bush.
Just as Truman’s presidency has been dramatically positively reassessed in the 66 years since he left office (to the point where he was recently ranked 6th-best), I firmly believe that of Bush 41 will also be.
Rest in peace, Mr. President. Your mission is complete.
Until next time…
 It was the sort of place where the men’s room, which locked from the outside, had a sign on its door reading “Please do not use drugs in the bathroom.”
7 thoughts on “Rest in peace, George Herbert Walker Bush”
What a wonderful post!
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