George H. W. Bush, historical ranking

The Historical Ranking of George Herbert Walker Bush

By Doug Wead, December, 2010

This week I leave for a speaking tour of Russia that will take me from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean to Krasnodar near the Black Sea, with a dozen spots in between.  The crowds will vary from 15,000 in Khabarovsk to 5,000 in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.  And off stage, with my hosts and in the restaurants, once again, I will hear the retelling of “the collapse” or what we call the end of the Cold War and once again they will talk with relish and detail about the role played by George H. W. Bush, it is a story you seldom hear in the United States.

Yes, they acknowledge that President Ronald Reagan was the catalyst for events but they have a healthy opinion of the role that Bush played in 1989-90, when a counter revolution was possible but American restraint ruled it out.  In some countries, such as Poland, Hungary and Slovenia, Bush, Sr. is widely admired for his role as much as Ronald Reagan and in Russia and parts of Eastern Ukraine, he is bitterly credited for playing a key part in what happened.  Understand, most of the older population still has mixed emotions about the end of the Soviet era and almost all are embarrassed by the loss of their empire.

This experience always amazes me and I learn new things each time, for that famous Berlin Wall kept us out as much as it kept them in. By the way, no matter what Ronald Reagan said in his speech, the Wall came down under George H. W. Bush.  What is certain is that the role Bush 41 played in this story is seen very differently in the former Soviet Union than it is in the United States where the stock market rises and falls on an anticipated future and has little respect for what is happening today.  By the time George H. W. Bush moved into the White House, the Cold War was over in American minds, or at least it would be soon.  But in fact, it was still a dangerous time.  The Lithuanian lobby was working furiously in the United States, demanding Bush to confront the Soviets, a chance of a lifetime, they insisted.  But Bush would not be distracted.  You don’t go into anguish over the loss of a pawn when the King and Checkmate, itself, is only a few moves away.

In the end, Lithuania and almost all of the Soviet Republics and nations under Soviet domination got their independence, in no small measure because of the wisdom and diplomatic skills of an extraordinary president.  It was the defining moment in modern world history.

Likewise, George H. W. Bush’s decisive action in Panama has to be contrasted to the Reagan-Carter-Ford years when Americans complained about drugs and what it was doing to the country but limited their war to arresting addicted dealers on the streets, beefing up the borders or well meaning slogans, “Just Say No,” while taking no effective, strategic, international action.  We now forget the danger but pundits and historians were comparing the American experience to the Chinese, a whole nation that went to sleep for a hundred years on opium.

When George H. W. Bush went to war in the Gulf, he went with the whole world at his back.  Never before had such a coalition existed. The United Nations, at its idealistic birth, never had such unanimity.   Metternich and Talleyrand could only dream of such a moment.  Never before and never since.  And only a man of George H. W. Bush’s temperament, experience and competence could have pulled it off.  By the way, those who fault him for not “finishing the job” now have a historical comparison, which makes him only look better to many.

Oh yes, I know.  It’s about the economy stupid.  But a sluggish economy was generously helped by an animated, biased media.  Nothing historically new in that but nevertheless a reality.  The stock market, for example, was on 38% climb from the bottom when Clinton beat Bush “because of the economy.”  In fact, it was not the economy, nor Bill Clinton, nor the media which cost him his re-election.  It was the third party challenge of fellow Texan and multi-millionaire, Ross Perot.

Oops, a big disclaimer is overdue here.  I once worked for George Herbert Walker Bush so I may be a tad prejudice.  But I may also have a tad bit of insight.

History has a way of catching up with these things.  And what I write now and what others write now will make little difference.  But I submit that the blurry images we are seeing reveal a presidency far more talented and complicated than the elitist clique of Sienna polled historians have already arrogantly carved in stone.  Whether I live to see it or not, I strongly suspect that George Herbert Walker Bush will be rediscovered with relish some day.  The people in the former Soviet Empire are already there.  By the millions they have lived the reality of those years and they know the critical, historic role that he played.

see: Historical ranking of George W. Bush


Published by Doug Wead

Doug Wead is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, Game of Thorns, is about the Trump-Clinton 2016 election. He served as an adviser to two American presidents and was a special assistant to the president in the George H.W. Bush White House.

25 thoughts on “George H. W. Bush, historical ranking

  1. Very interesing post. A lot to chew on.

    We are sometimes too close to the forest to see the trees, as they say. I have no doubt that the Russians et. al. are onto something here.

    GHWB was very bright and his kindness was mistaken by critics for weakness. I for one was impressed that he had a firm hand without being stampeded into being reckless or tough just to prove some personal macho to George Will. He was a great man, a man who measured his options well. I agree, history will catch up on this when his media enemies finally pass from the scene.

  2. I think it is interesting to take an international worldview when discussing the political figures of our lifetime.

    Who will the next great world power be? How will the citizens of this new found empire see our presidents.. which ones will stick out?

    I think we can even see more clearly today on our actions in the 1980’s only a couple decades later. How will George H. W. Bush be seen amongst the biggest events of our time? What will history even remember as the pivotal moments of the past, beyond what they see to effect them in the moment?

    Great post.. gives the reader a lot to think about.. and from a stand point that is not limited by an American world view.

  3. Great post. Dad has a better legacy possibly in one term, than son does in two long terms that seemed like three. You’ll tell us in a few years after the dust has settled.

    Enjoy your trip to Russia.

  4. Doug,

    Good analysis, and I agree with most of it.
    Especiallt the facts about Ross Perot being the true cause of Bush’s loss in 1992.
    Of course, at least in part, this was southern/conservative backlash against what they perceived as tax-and-too-liberal Bush.

    And it points out the hypocrisy of the media and the “left”, when they faulted Bush Jr for his narrow less-than-majority number votes in 2000. Clinton had by far less of the popular vote in 1992 than Bush Jr. ever did, but did anyone fault him for lack of a mandate?

    As for Bush’s ability to craft the mega coalition in 1990, well put as to those skills, and especially how we were able to get others to pay for it.

    BUT, that does not make the action itself right. Bush, through being part of the Reagan team had helped encourage Saddam Hussein for years in his war against Iran, but only so much that it would result in stalemate, not victory. It was our double dealing in the region that (at least in large part) helped prolong the war greatly and at great cost of life and resources.

    When looked at from the point of goading a long protracted stalemate on, it helps to explain one of the reasons for Iran-Contra, as we had come to realize, that Iran woudl need our weapons help too, lest Hussein should win.

    And no sooner was this over, give or take a year, and when Hussein was trying to rebuilt his strength and grip over the country, that we invade.
    Husseins demands were not really unreasonable with respect to Kuweit, as the al-Sabas kept pumping (thus depressing the only revenue of Iraq), and then demanding repayment of funds lent to Hussein, that was lent supposedly to help the Arabs fight the Persians. They knew Hussein could not repay, had initially suggested when offering that they would not seek repayment, and then they reneged.

    What did Bush Sr. and his administration do? They effectively told Hussein that he has carte-blanche, and the US will not get involved– as proved by the discussions with Ambassador April Glaspie in August before the Kuweit invasion. So Hussein acts on that, and we pretend to be the moral arbiter.

    Yes indeed, all that was diplomatic genius, of which both Metternich and esp. Talleyrand would be proud, but it is also right out of the pages of pure Machtpolitik. Relativistically speaking brilliant.

    But viewed from an absolut viewpoint, just doublecrossing and hypocrisy, none of which is worthy of the ideals claimed to support the invasion. Stalinesque, Bismarkian, but not the moral high-road.

    Bush (and Baker) was definitely right in “not finishing” the job, as they knew full well the Pandora’s box that would open. We see it now, too bad sons don’t learn from the mistakes or the wisdom of their fathers until it’s too late.
    (Of course, one can argue that the fall of the USSR that Bush Sr. had a hand in, removed the opposite queen from the chessboard which had constrained him in Iraq to some extent. Thus Bush Jr. was able to plan this war against on opponent with only pawns, and do as he please).

    As to your comment about the Panama invasion, one can debate it.

    But as you praise the invasion for doing something about the drug-problem (and citing Chinas opium daze), I can not see how that squares with your notion which you wrote about in “Smoking weed with Ron Paul”. It is the approach towards drugs you rightly criticise in that column, which caused the Panama situation in the first place, and no invasion would have been necessary if we had done long ago what you wrote about then.

  5. This is a great post. Your combination of clear insight and historical perspective summarize Bush 41’s rich legacy very well.

  6. Thanks for sharing your insight! It’s always a great reminder that there are a lot of other perspectives out there…Even if we (here in the US) can’t acknowledge everything that President Bush accomplished, perhaps in time, people will begin to see the true leadership.

  7. Great post.

    I’ve actually stood at the shipyard where the Polish began the overthrow of communism, and I’ve seen the lingering effects of communism of the people of Poland. I don’t think history should so quickly gloss over the legacy of Bush’s help in liberating that country.

    Thank you for shedding light on that, and for giving a quick look at what will undoubtedly become a great legacy. I look forward to reading more.

  8. Thanmal,

    As I have stood at that same shipyard.

    How ironic that these Lenin shipyards in Gdansk as a symbol of modern Polish freedom started out as the Schichau shipyards in Danzig, and ended up with Poland under actions that were not within the then current framework of intenational law, other than purely victor’s might makes right, with Churchill’s and FDR’s (later Truman’s) acquiescene to stompin’ Joe.

    Bush’s conduct here was by far more open and honest than that of his predecessors, but even he did not insist on a formal peace treaty to end World War II. Such a peace treaty (for Europe) does not exist to this day, and most likely never will (The 2+4 talks were not a true treaty’s equivalent).
    Makes one wonder why all parties involved do not want to heal these gaps in international law.

  9. (…Let’s not beat around the Bushes…)

    Dear Doug,

    Thanks for your insight to our #41 & also #43 (after reading W for Mt Rushmore). However, because of my paranoia that history will repeat itself…that every great Empire must have its end…every President preceding the LAST President…is a ‘great’ President in my book.

    Still, given your enlightment about family ‘separation’…is it really fair to compare father & son? I’ll be the first to admit…I’m No historian & I have Nothing new to offer (…outside of wikipedia…) but to be fair to the Bushes…may I be so cocky to suggest apple #34?

    #34 certainly had the balls to steal a page from #1 by giving his own ‘farewell’ to warn us about the gates to the Military-Industrial Complex (…the very gates he helped opened…but anyway…) from which we are still reaping the ‘benefits’ by being…a historic military superpower!

    To address the threat of the day (just like #43), he concocted his own ‘doctrine’ thereby transferring war-making powers from Congress to the Presidency (…which is unconstitutional…but anyway…) allowing him the ability to ‘contain’ communist activity anywhere in the world…marking the beginning of an historic ‘war’ (setting up #41 to end it)!

    #34’s first act of ‘war’ was tested in Lebanon…by sending +/- 15,000 troops to quell a potential civil war (…nothing to do with communism…but anyway…) & Operation ‘Blue Bat’ was Accomplished with 4 dead soldiers (…3 by accident…). They were sent in July & out in October…(4) months. No allies necessary. Compare that to the Gulf War (which took more than ONE operation) with +/- 700,000 (American) troops…293 dead (…145 by accident…& one MIA…) & it took from August to February…(7) months.

    Let alone presiding over the surmise of our mother Empire…by responding to his own ‘canal’ crisis when it was discovered that Israel, France, & the UK were colluding to invade Egypt. America, being 3rd wheel (…technically 5th wheel…but anyway…) chose the ‘high’ road to stop the UK from committing the act of war. So the UK stood down…agape at their own sunset…& the Arab-Israeli War (Part I) was delayed for a decade…& all America did was whisper a financial threat (without wasting a bullet)!

    Let’s not forget it was his CIA’s coup d’etat of the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister to re-install a pro-Western Dictator, here at home he paved the way for the interstate highway, sent the National Guard to escort 9 black students to an all-white school, & even put the controversy into our innocent Pledge…with those mighty (2) words…’under God’ (in reference to a speech by the one & only…#16).

    What’s most interesting is, based on his foreign & domestic policy (…increased the size of government…), he set the precedent for the neo-conservatives in the Republican party before the word ‘neo-con’ was even invented! He is the paradigm that gave birth to the likes of Barry Goldwater & Ron Paul…& they probably don’t even know it! (Or do they…?)

    & I’m not saying #34 is the Greatest President Ever…after all his (899) electoral votes in two terms is no match for #41’s (426) votes in one term & #43’s (557) in 2 terms COMBINED!

    All I’m saying is that time has a way of forgetting ‘great’ people…especially when they are Not the Greatest! Unless of course…you’re a wikipedia…

    (…2 Bushes at a bar…& wikipedia walks up to them & says: How do you like ‘that’ apple?…)

  10. Cbsure:

    “… because of my paranoia …”

    “I know nothiong outside of wikipedia and have nothing new to offer…”

    That sums you up succinctly. Slow day down on the farm today, Jethro?

  11. I misquoted you, cbsure ..

    You said “I’m no (sic) historian and I have nothing new to offer (outside of wikipedia)”

    Statements such as these prove once more that our public school system is a failure.

  12. Very good. americans usually very ignorant on anything outiside of continent. but you also miss the Bush – Chima connection. Time will finally say that this president opened China, not with guns and trillion dollars new weapons but with Chinese like patience, unseen, so save of face. It took someone who knows Chinese. OnlyBush the father, could do this. Nixon could not do this. Not Clinton, only bush the father. and yes, america hurt with new China oil demand but threat of end of world also worht a price. Much Chinese adore Bush the father. Great man for history.

  13. This is fascinating, as is the piece on George W. Bush and his historical ranking. We will see. but I tend to think that Wead is more accurate about the senior Bush than the younger.

  14. Bush is clearly deserving of his current stature and next to John Adams is the best one term president in history. I wonder too if being a one term president has been better for HW in history terms. His career was so defined by being public servant that the 4 years and moving on has looked good in retrospect, particularly since Clinton was a beneficiary of his deficit lowering policies.

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