George H.W. Bush Was A Man In The Middle, Says Former Speechwriter

Originally published on December 4, 2018 12:16 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

George H.W. Bush often found himself in the in-between. He was a transitional president, trying to navigate the end of the Cold War. He told his biographer, Jon Meacham, that he was personally caught between the glory of Ronald Reagan and the political travails of his son. And Bush often found himself in the political center for good and for ill. He was a moderate Republican at a time when the conservative wing of the GOP was ascending.

That faction of the party would lead Republicans to win the House in 1994 and lay the foundation for a GOP today where moderates seem to be disappearing. To talk more about this, we are joined now by Andy Ferguson, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and a national correspondent for The Weekly Standard. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANDREW FERGUSON: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: How would you describe George H.W.'s brand of Republicanism?

FERGUSON: Well, I think you put it well. It was largely a matter of temperament for him. He was not an ideological person. And he came from a time when ideology was thought of as kind of an obstacle to governing. Temperamentally, he was a man of the middle. And I think he wanted to translate that sort of temperament that he had into his presidency. Of course, politics doesn't often accommodate that kind of temperament.

MARTIN: No. Someone who has a moderate kind of temperament, we often see them move to more extremes when they're campaigning. Point in fact, he uttered that famous line, no new taxes, in 1988 at the Republican convention and then two years later, had to go back on that promise. And there was this huge backlash within the party as a result - ended up paving the way for Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution of '94. Did he take that as a repudiation of him? Did he take it personally?

FERGUSON: Well, I think he said himself said he did. And certainly, I remember when the last days of the administration were going on and we were all filing out the door, he was almost apologetic to those of us who had worked for him. I thought that was certainly not necessary for him to apologize to anybody. He had been a very good president in a time that wasn't very well suited to him.

The important thing about the no new taxes business, though, is that he broke the promise. And that was - he knew it when he did it. If you look in his diaries, he says they're going to kill me if I break this pledge. But that unleashed all kinds of forces not just within the Republican Party but two years later then, he was facing - totally out of left field - this kind of crazy guy from Texas who ended up winning 20 percent of the vote - Ross Perot.

MARTIN: Ross Perot, yeah.

FERGUSON: And it was totally unforeseen by the time he broke that no new taxes pledge. And that unleashed - beyond Perot, you then have a sort of free-floating animus against politicians in general. And it got picked up by Gingrich. It got picked up by the Tea Party. Obama, I think, even took advantage of that kind of mistrust of the established order. And a lot of that can be traced back to that no new taxes pledge and the breaking of it.

MARTIN: For many people, he did represent the ultimate establishment, you know? He was the guy with the perfect resume. He came, was bred in the Northeast even though later settled in Texas. Can you talk about how he tried to shed that?

FERGUSON: Well, I don't think he really ever thought he could. And I don't think he wanted to. He was an extremely naturally gracious man. He had a sense of propriety in all of his dealings with people. You know, the old Eastern establishment saying was always watch how they treat the help. And then George W. - H.W. Bush, if you looked at him that way, he was a real stalwart of that kind of propriety and self-possession. He had a good sense of who he was. And he was very good at maintaining those standards.

MARTIN: Tough to come after The Great Communicator, though, and Bush 41 is often criticized for not being able to connect with average American voters. Did he struggle with that part of the job?

FERGUSON: Well, I don't think he really thought of it as part of the job. He thought he had been - he had an older view of what elected representatives do, which is you get elected, and then you're elected to do your job, which is to try and see all the options ahead of you, apply your character, your principles, your experience and do what you can to do the best for the country. It's not a matter of just following what some focus group in a shopping mall is going to be telling your pollster. Of course, he did lots of polls. Everybody does lots of polls. But that wasn't really - wasn't his sense of leadership. Leadership is someone who leads.

MARTIN: Do you see George H.W. Bush Republicans today in the party?

FERGUSON: Oh, yeah, sure. You know, the thing is about parties, the parties are - they're organisms. And they're always changing. They're always growing. At the moment, it's a hyperpolarized period. I don't think I'm the first one to have mentioned that. And, you know, the George W. Bush - H.W. Bush people are there. They'll come back out in four or six or eight years and parties will change back.

MARTIN: Andrew Ferguson, national correspondent for The Weekly Standard, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, thank you for your time this morning, sir.

FERGUSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.