George Herbert Walker Bush was the beginning of the end of the Republican Party as it was once known.
Some might point to Ronald Reagan, whom Bush lost to in a bruising primary in 1980, as the beginning of the end. Perhaps you can go as far back as Barry Goldwater in 1964, where fierce libertarianism manifested itself in the conservative wing of our two-party system. But, really, how can you not say it was under Bush where the GOP finally succumbed to a populist wave that has been fully realized now by President Donald Trump?
Bush, who we rightfully remembered with a National Day of Mourning on Wednesday, Dec. 5, is a man so steeped in public service that his picture ought to be the example for the definition. As will be well documented and often repeated, he was a World War II Naval Aviator at the age of 18, mere months after Pearl Harbor. He was shot down and rescued in the Pacific and flew 58 combat missions altogether (he returned to his unit after his rescue at sea). His resume includes a stint in Congress, U.N. Ambassador, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, vice president of the United States under Reagan and as our 41st president.
Bush was also wealthy and from a family of privilege. Son of a U.S. senator. Attended Yale. Made a mint in oil. And was excoriated in the 1992 campaign for having difficulty knowing the price of a gallon of milk.
Bush was a blue blood, but he still tried his hand at being patrician with a “kinder and gentler” brand of politics. His son, our 43rd president, took it to the next level with “compassionate conservatism,” but it was that 1992 campaign, where the war hero and commander-in-chief who presided over an unprecedented coalition military victory in Kuwait (it took all but four days to evict the Iraqis) and the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with the fall of the Berlin Wall, seemed to lose touch with the American people.
How could this be? How could a man who put service-above-self become characterized as a “wimp,” distant, and aloof?
I would like to think it’s because he didn’t eat his broccoli, but if you live to 94, that’s clearly not the reason. No, it was a narrative.
Consider this nugget from The New York Times written as campaign post mortem in 1992: “By now, some analyses of the coverage of 1992’s election are already flying off the copying machines. While these analyses differ both in their methodologies and in their purposes, at least two studies that span the political divide seem to agree on one central point: that Mr. Bush did get more negative coverage than his rivals.”
Reflecting on the phenomenon was former Bush strategist, Mary Matalin, recently in The Washington Examiner, “1992 was replete with more egregious examples relative to Bush bashing – and fabricating – but the big difference was the double standard for Bill Clinton. I don’t mean in the slobbering adoration devotion they paid to Obama. Obviously, there was ample attention to Jennifer Flowers, pot smoking, etc. It was more the inattention to his policy prescriptions, record in Arkansas, and persistent lying about our campaign.”
The media shared a self-assessment of their coverage for The Los Angeles Times: “A majority of U.S. journalists who followed the 1992 presidential campaign believe President Bush’s candidacy was damaged by press coverage of his record and of the economy, according to a survey released Saturday.”
They went on to say they believe they covered the campaign fairly, but that Bush was done in by their accurate reporting on his performance in office and the nation’s economy. Of course, making a promise, such as “no new taxes” and failing to deliver could have had something to do with it, too.
That said, when the press also doesn’t cover the policy failings of your opponent, as Matalin points out, the narrative is bound to be unbalanced.
Thus, the Republican counter-narrative of bias in the media was born, further inflamed over the years by the boom of conservative talk radio.
By then bringing in the disaffected groups born from the Perot movement of 1992 that morphed into the Reform Party and then the Tea Party, the ground had more than adequately been tilled for the era of Tweets and Fake News.
As I reflect on a true public servant’s passing, I will undoubtedly think a thousand “what ifs” to go along with his thousand points of light.
This column appears in The Princess Anne Independent News