Sunday, May 27, 2018
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David Shribman

Bush the elder gets a makeover this holiday season

THE bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report is due Wednesday, but the contours of its central proposal are already known. The group, with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III as its co-chairman, is going to call for a gradual pullback of American troops.

The group's diplomatic importance is already apparent, as well. It may be the most important government commission in American history. But its political significance has largely been missed in all the mist about the return of Mr. Baker and the resurgence of the "adults" who surrounded President Bush's father in his 1989-93 administration.

There's almost no evidence of the revenge of the adults, and in some ways that is not the point. What's remarkable, and pretty much unremarked upon, is the resurgence of the reputation of George Herbert Walker Bush.

Old reputation: Hopelessly goofy prepster completely out of touch with his times and with the American people, better suited to the country club than to running the country, a scourge to grammarians, rhetoricians, and broccoli farmers, our only fey president.

New reputation: Wily theoretician in foreign policy, steady steward of the nation's course, articulate spokesman for American values as the Soviet empire collapsed and as an Iraq empire threatened.

Also making a comeback in the wake of the Bush 41 revisionism: the word prudent. Throughout his administration, the senior Bush was ridiculed for preferring the prudent to the daring. After eight years of imprudent private behavior in the Clinton White House and six years of daring in the Bush 43 White House, the country seems to crave a little prudence.

Part of the resurgence of father Bush's reputation is due to the natural historical course, where American presidents seem a lot more appealing in retrospect than they seemed in office. A nation that was mild about Harry and that believed to err was Truman came to embrace the 33rd president as the personification of American values, adoring him in the rear view mirror for the very reasons it ridiculed him in the White House. A nation that reacted in disbelief and horror to Gerald R. Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon came to see that Mr. Ford was right, a transformation that took its form in the remarkable, and eminently laudable, decision by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation to present the Republican president with a Profile in Courage Award in May 2001.

We do this - change our minds about things we once were certain - out of a sense of nostalgia. But it's not the kind of nostalgia that wraps our memories in misty recollections about times gone by, when we try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow. It's something quite different. Historians and regular Americans sometimes are a bit like masons, trying to fill the empty spaces in our leaders with the cement we remember from previous times. The most striking example may be Fred I. Greenstein's landmark reinterpretation of Dwight D. Eisenhower, written during the Jimmy Carter years and published in the Ronald Reagan years. This book portrayed Mr. Eisenhower as a shrewd magus who knew exactly what he was doing even though he spoke in a befuddled cloud of dependent clauses and non sequiturs.

Mr. Eisenhower had his low points, confirming his rival Adlai Stevenson's critique that the general had a tendency to hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil, an impulse that prevented him from taking a more aggressive role in civil rights. So lukewarm was the Eisenhower reputation one year after he left office that a 1962 historians' poll on the presidents ranked him 11th of the 12 "average " presidents, below Chester A. Arthur, whose revisionism we still await.

Today's Bush revisionism hasn't wiped away all of the controversial elements of his presidency, including the cultural schisms that were prompted by his nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and economic conditions that led to the deficit reaching $350 billion and the percentage of Americans qualifying for food stamps hitting a historic high of 10 percent.

That's all still part of the Bush record, and of the Bush memory. But today it is clear that Mr. Bush managed the fall of communism almost flawlessly, teaching a social lesson along the way. (He told his staff: No gloating. Too bad NFL running backs and receivers still haven't received the message.) He assembled the broadest military alliance in history to push Iraq out of Kuwait. He showed restraint in not toppling Saddam Hussein in 1991 out of fear that the power vacuum in Iraq might cause a civil war. He treated the White House with dignity and the presidency with respect.

George H.W. Bush was a remorseless pugilist in campaigns - it is a peculiar personality tic, completely at odds with his world view - but he was a gentleman in office, and in his personal life. Mr. Bush never wrote a memoir, which may be his greatest contribution to American life, but he did publish perhaps the most remarkable book ever assembled by an American president. It is called All the Best, George Bush, and it is a collection of letters he has written over the years. It is the most affecting presidential book ever, and if you doubt it, read his letter to Ann Devroy, maybe the fiercest White House reporter of all time, a woman who dedicated her life to ferreting out the truth from the Bush White House and then lost her life to cancer. This is what he wrote:

"I was the out-of-touch president, the wimp. But now I am out of it, happy in my very private life, away from the arena; and you are on leave fighting a battle that far transcends the battles of the political wars. Strangely, wonderfully, I feel close to you now. I want you to win this battle. I want that same toughness that angered me and frustrated me to a fare-thee-well at times to see you through your fight."

A man who can write a letter like that deserves revisionism. But we're the beneficiaries, too. Sometimes revisionism is a gift we give ourselves.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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