For George H. W. Bush, who died last week at age 94, doing the little things well helped make him president.
It was also the little things that undermined his presidency and eclipsed his legacy. It is a legacy many are saying now should have been examined much more.
Once when asked what habit helped him gain the presidency, Bush said it was the handwritten note, a small thing, but a practice that has fallen out of fashion today. But for Bush, who wrote notes to friends, colleagues, acquaintances and rivals all the time, it mattered greatly.
His obvious care, concern, dedication to duty, love of country and devotion to his family are habits that served him well.
For a one-term president, Bush’s list of accomplishments is impressive. He got the Americans With Disabilities Act through Congress, a law that changed the way we live and the way we look at people with disabilities. Thanks to Bush, people with disabilities have access to public accommodations the rest of the population takes for granted. But more than that, the disabled today are treated with much more respect.
The Cold War between the superpowers after World War II, that Bush helped win as a young Navy pilot, is bookended by two great events. The first was the construction of the Berlin Wall, which touched off the greatest crisis of the Kennedy Administration and near nuclear war — the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The second event was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred during Bush’s tenure. Sure, it was Ronald Reagan who set the events in motion that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it was Bush who successfully managed the end of the Soviet Union and the break-up of the old Warsaw Pact. They were dangerous times, but the transition was peaceful. It was the most important post-World War II event in history, successfully managed by Bush.
His leadership in the First Gulf War was unprecedented. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower couldn’t have pulled off such a coalition of allies to face Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after his invasion of Kuwait.
Those were the triumphs. After the failures of the previous administrations — LBJ and Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, Carter, and the Iran-Contra scandal that blemished Reagan’s second term — one would think such a record would lead to a landslide second-term victory.
But it didn’t. And it was the little things that torpedoed Bush’s chance at greatness.
His first campaign for president in 1980 is remembered for two things. He called Reagan’s economic plan “voodoo economics,” and that term stuck. Then, at a debate in New Hampshire, Reagan took charge of the race with his “I am paying for this microphone” comment.
Bush didn’t have a chance.
In 1990, I interviewed Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, then powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. In talking about taxes, I recall Rostenkowski claiming to have told Bush, “Mr. President, the Treasury is empty.”
Bush worked out a much needed tax increase with Rosty and the other Democrats, but all anyone remembered was something he said in his acceptance speech in 1988: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
Bush had put service to the nation above his political career. But nobody saw it that way. He went back on a pledge.
Finally, there was the election of 1992, where a combination of a withering economy, a gadfly third party candidate in Ross Perot and the emergence of Bill Clinton sabotaged a second Bush term.
I remember well the night I believe Bush lost the presidency. During a debate with Clinton and Perot, Bush was asked about how he was affected by the national debt. Bush looked at his watch.
That was it. That little subconscious move cost him dearly.
As a one-termer, some might consider the Bush presidency as an underachievement. Instead, he should be remembered as our greatest one-term president.
• Randy Blaser is a freelance columnist.