As federal holidays go, Presidents’ Day ranks low on the fun meter – unless you’re jazzed by the prospect of no mail or a mattress sale. But it does provide an excuse for one of our favorite parlor games, ranking the chief executives.
A new survey of presidential scholars gives the top slot to Abe Lincoln, and fills the top 10 with the guys you’d mostly expect to see there. I say mostly, because Bill Clinton makes the top 10 – ahead of Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. Which is why it’s such a parlor game, as slippery an exercise as trying to get consensus about the best and worst movies.
But what most interested me was the trio of presidents cited as Most Underrated. Scanning the names, I was pleased to see my personal favorite:
George H. W. Bush.
That’s right, folks. Put your hands together for Poppy.
He was listed along with Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, but here’s the thing: Truman was rehabilitated decades ago, most notably by the biographer David McCoullough; Ike’s tenure has been well regarded at least since 1970, when historian Garry Wills rehabbed him in the book Nixon Agonistes. Bush, by contrast, has been largely overlooked – and that’s unfair.
I’ll concede Bush’s downside. He ran a nasty campaign in 1988 – or, more accurately, hit man Lee Atwater ran it for him – sliming his Democratic opponent, Mike Dukakis, with TV ad tactics not previously attempted. Bush gave us Clarence Thomas, who to this day functions mostly as Scalia’s Mini-me. Bush’s tenure was theme-free (he famously mocked what he called “the vision thing”), and he won only 38 percent of the votes in his re-election bid. History is often unkind to losers.
But permit me to rephrase Shakespeare: I come not to bury Bush, but to praise him.
Think about it. He championed and signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. In his convention acceptance speech, he had promised, “I am going to do whatever it takes to make sure the disabled are included in the mainstream” – and he followed through. The ’90 law barred discrimination on the basis of disability in the workplace, public accomodations, and transit. Conservatives complained (natch) that the law was unwarranted government intrustion, that it was too expensive, that it betrayed the Reagan revolution. But today, it’s a given.
Bush also had the stones to clean up Ronald Reagan’s fiscal mess. The icon had blown a hole in the federal ledger – when Reagan left office in January ’89, the budget debt was three times larger than it was when he took office – but Bush got things under control. Working a deal with congressional Democrats (bipartisan cooperation, what a concept), the ’90 Budget Reconciliation Act slashed the deficit by cutting spending and raising taxes. Bush had famously promised “no new taxes,” so conservatives roasted him. But he took the heat – the price he had to pay for dealing with reality.
Bush also boosted the Clean Air Act, with new rules to cut urban smog, curb acid rain, and eliminate toxic chemical emissions. His signature broke a 13-year logjam. Conservatives complained (natch) about unwarranted government intrusion, but Bush said it was important that all Americans “breathe clean air” – with the help of market incentives that made it more attractive for businesses to go green.
He also ticked off the religious right on a regular basis, which certainly does him proud. I remember talking in ’92 with folks of faith down in South Carolina, and they were steamed that Bush had invited gay people to some of his bill signings. As one evangelical minister complained to me, “He’s giving homosexuals a ray of hope.” Bush took the political heat for that, too.
And, lest we forget, Poppy was prudent on the foreign front. He was generally reluctant to send U.S. troops to the world’s hot spots (he held back in the Balkans, where the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats were busy killing each other) – and in ’90s, when he committed to throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, he did so by assembling an international coalition that shared the pain and cost.
And once the war was won in Kuwait, he wisely stopped short of marching on Baghdad. He believed that toppling Saddam and occupying Iraq would plunge America into a quagmire and destabilize the entire region. If only his foolish son hadn’t tried so disastrously to prove him wrong.
Alas, most Americans today don’t remember Poppy’s upside, but I doubt he cares much. He has always been a doer, not a brooder. To celebrate his big birthdays – 80, 85, 90 – he parachuted out of airplanes; in his words, “I want people at my age to know they don’t have to slow down.” He’s only three years shy of becoming the oldest president ever (the record, 93, is shared by John Adams and Reagan), and here’s hoping he makes it.