Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Apparent Heir

The New York Times
October 31, 2004

The Apparent Heir

Columnists for this newspaper are not allowed to endorse presidential candidates. But I think this election is so important, I am going to break the rules. I hope I don't get fired. But here goes: I am endorsing George Bush for president. No, no - not George W. Bush. I am endorsing his father - George Herbert Walker Bush.

The more I look back on the elder Bush - Bush 41 - the more I find things to admire and the more I see attributes we need in our next president.

Let's start with domestic policy. The elder George Bush was the real uniter, not divider, the real believer in a kinder, gentler political dialogue. Yes, he had a Democratic Congress to deal with, so he had to be more conciliatory, but it came naturally to him. In 1990, the elder Bush sided with Congressional Democrats to raise taxes, because he knew it was the right thing for the economy, despite his famous "Read my lips" pledge not to raise new taxes. While that 1990 tax increase contributed to his re-election defeat, it laid the foundation for the Clinton tax increases, which, together with Mr. Bush's, helped to hold down interest rates and spur our tremendous growth in the 1990's and the buildup of a huge surplus.

On foreign policy, the elder Bush maintained a healthy balance between realism and idealism, unilateralism and multilateralism, American strength and American diplomacy. He believed that international institutions like the U.N. could be force multipliers of U.S. power. Rather than rubbing Mikhail Gorbachev's nose in the dirt, the elder Bush treated him with respect, and in doing so helped to orchestrate the collapse of the Soviet Union, the liberation of Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany without the firing of a single shot. The nonviolent unraveling of the Soviet Empire ushered in a decade of prosperity and an era of unprecedented American power and popularity.

The alliance that Mr. Bush, Brent Scowcroft and James A. Baker III built to drive Saddam out of Kuwait had so many allies it virtually turned a profit for America. Mr. Bush chose not to invade Baghdad in 1991. Right or wrong, he felt that had he tried, he would have lost the coalition he had built up to evict Saddam from Kuwait. He obviously believed that the U.S. should never invade an Arab capital without a coalition that contained countries whose support mattered in that part of the world, such as France, Egypt, Syria or Saudi Arabia.

The elder Bush rightly understood that it was not in Israel's interest, or that of the U.S., for Israel to be expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The Madrid peace conference convened by the elder Bush paved the way for both the Oslo peace process and the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, which ended Israel's diplomatic isolation with countries like India and China. It was also the elder Bush who laid the groundwork for the Nafta free-trade accord, completed by President Bill Clinton.

In short, the elder Bush understood the importance of acting in the world - but acting wisely, with competence and preparation. His great weakness was his public diplomacy. He wrongly antagonized American Jews by challenging their right to lobby on behalf of Israel. He could have given more voice to the amazing liberation of humanity that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented and to the American anger over the Tiananmen Square massacre. Although, in his muted response to Tiananmen, the elder Bush kept China-U.S. relations from going totally off the rails, which kept China on a track to economic reform. Although he raised taxes, he never really explained himself. So his instincts were good, his mechanics were often flawless, but his words and music left you frustrated. Still, the legacy is a substantial one. Over time, historians will treat the elder Bush with respect.

So as we approach this critical election of 2004, my advice, dear readers, is this: Vote for the candidate who embodies the ethos of George H. W. Bush - the old guy. Vote for the man who you think would have the same gut feel for nurturing allies and restoring bipartisanship to foreign policy as him. Vote for the man you think understands the importance of facing up to our fiscal responsibilities for the sake of our children. And vote for the man who has the best instincts for balancing realism and idealism and the man who understands the necessity of using energetic U.S. diplomacy to make Israel more secure - by helping to bring it peace with its Arab neighbors, not just more tours from American Christian fundamentalists.

Yes, next Tuesday, vote for the real political heir to George H. W. Bush. I'm sure you know who that is.