Editorial: How We Got From George H.W. Bush to Trump

  • A condolence book sits in front of a painting of George H.W. Bush inside the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in College Station. Bush has died at age 94. Family spokesman Jim McGrath says Bush died shortly after 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush.(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

What a long strange trip it’s been for America from the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush to that of Donald Trump. How exactly the nation went from electing a supremely well-prepared president to choosing a woefully unprepared one — and in the process going from humility to hubris, from restraint to recklessness, from prudence to prurience — is a story that will require the full light of history to tell. But it is possible even now to spot some of the milestones along that sharp, 30-year descent.

Bush, the 41st president, who died Friday at age 94, was the last of the so-called Greatest Generation presidents. He enlisted in the Navy at age 18, and flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II. It is not surprising that in those who experience its terrors at first-hand, war breeds restraint and caution of the type Bush displayed in navigating the end of the Cold War and the murderous crackdown on Chinese dissidents in Tiananmen Square.

Ironically, when Bush did choose to go to war, organizing a broad coalition of nations in 1990 and 1991 to drive Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, that very caution shaped the future in ways that were unforeseen at the time. The immediate objective was achieved by massive air strikes and a triumphant ground war that was over in 100 hours. Mission accomplished with few American casualties, Bush decided not to risk pursuing the ouster of Saddam Hussein, incorrectly calculating that the Iraqi people would do so on their own.

When Bush sought re-election in 1992, he was defeated by Bill Clinton, a baby boomer whose ascendance marked a generational shift in American leadership from one whose formative experience was the unity forged by the great crusade against fascism to one that came of age in the turbulent and divisive ’60s. Clinton’s shameful personal conduct with women, and Hillary Clinton’s seeming tolerance of it, confirmed for many that the self-indulgence attributed to their generation was a fact. The tawdriness that Clinton introduced into public life has been difficult to erase, despite the exemplary personal behavior of his two immediate successors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The Clinton presidency not only set the stage for Trump’s outrageous and embarrassing personal excesses, but also for the right-wing populism he espouses. Deregulation of the banking industry and the enthusiastic promotion of globalization without adequate appreciation of the consequences for ordinary Americans, both of which occurred on Clinton’s watch, are heavily implicated in the rise of Trumpism: the former for its role in bringing on the Great Recession; the latter for its role in hollowing out the working-class economy.

The decision to leave Saddam in power was to have terrible consequences for Bush’s son, who succeeded Clinton and served two terms. The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, somehow became conflated in the younger Bush’s mind with the need to topple Saddam — a brutal thug to be sure, but one who played no part in 9/11. Thus was launched the invasion of Iraq and an era of war without end for America.

For those who chose to capitalize on it, 9/11 also served the purpose of substituting a new enemy for the one that had disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike the latter, Islamic terrorism never presented a threat to America’s very existence, but it did unleash a tide of xenophobia that fueled Trump’s rise.

The younger Bush was succeeded by Obama, the anti-Trump whose cool and cerebral style masked for a time the degree to which simple racism still animated a minority of Americans. While deftly presiding over the recovery from the Great Recession, Obama allowed the big banks that precipitated the crisis to be bailed out on a large scale without prosecuting them for wrongdoing or offering effective financial aid to hard-pressed homeowners who saw their savings disappear. This added more fuel to a smoldering, underground populist fire that erupted into the flames Trump has so successfully fanned.

The elder Bush was not without flaws, of course. His gentility did not extend to election campaigns, and “the vision thing” was notably absent from a distinguished resume that included service as a two-term congressman, United Nations ambassador, chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, chief of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice president. But he got some important things done, demonstrating along the way that sheer competence and an ideal of public service have a lot to be said for them. They still do.