America's Greatest Living President: George H.W. Bush?

The case for 41.

More than two decades removed from the White House, George H.W. Bush’s old friend James Baker seemingly damns him with faint praise. “Twenty-five years later, history is beginning to recognize that George Bush was the best one-term president in American history,” the former secretary of state told the New York Times.

The Times piece is about Bush’s improved image on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his presidency, but it’s also a reminder of why conservatives were never taken with the man. Dick Gephart praises the forty-first president. So does Dave Obey. Tom Harkin chimes in that he was better than Ronald Reagan, “much more integral to the development of American government and the process of democracy.”

If raising taxes and growing the regulatory state are your measures of greatness, than yes, Bush 41 outstrips Reagan. Not many conservatives this side of David Brooks grade on such a curve, however.

It’s also worth noting that much of Bush’s rehabilitation has been a result of his pleasant personality and personal decency. He is the nice old man who jumps out of airplanes, wears funny socks, and shaves his head in support of a young boy suffering from cancer.

Yet Bush was a temperamental conservative in the way that his more ideologically minded successors, ranging from Newt Gingrich to his own son, were not. The old Dana Carvey sketches about Bush featured the president saying, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”

“Prudence” was once a hallmark of conservatism. Indeed, one of Russell Kirk’s seminal works was titled The Politics of Prudence: Ten Conservative Principles. “Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata,” Kirk wrote.

Kirk supported Pat Buchanan over Bush in 1992, serving as Buchanan’s Michigan state chairman. Prudence could only carry a president so far.

The perilous situation unfolding in Ukraine under President Obama and the debacle in Iraq unleashed by the younger George Bush should nevertheless remind us that prudent statesmanship is easy to take for granted. Bush 41 skillfully presided over the collapse of Soviet communism and apartheid in South Africa. Does anything the U.S. has done in response to, say, the Arab spring really compare?

Hard as it is to believe, we once had a President Bush who was capable of winning a war in Iraq.

Perhaps because it wasn’t a war of choice, Saddam was the aggressor, and there was a genuine international coalition.

The neoconservative Washington Free Beacon has a running joke describing George W. Bush as America’s greatest living president. (Well, they might not be kidding, but it is pretty funny.) But it is a title that might properly belong to his father.

The younger Bush was better on taxes and a host of small-ball conservative initiatives. Even with John Roberts’ Obamacare vote, he was less of a mixed bag on Supreme Court appointees—David Souter turned out to be nearly as liberal as Clarence Thomas was conservative.

Bill Clinton’s main achievement was not screwing up the Internet boom of the 1990s. That was not for lack of trying, however. He had hoped for a larger tax increase and he aimed to inflict his wife on the health care system Obamacare-style. Clinton quietly ushered in the interventionism run amuck that his successor would take to the next level. He is mainly remembered for scandal, embarrassment, and Monica Lewinsky oral sex jokes.

About Jimmy Carter, the less that is said, the better.

Does not George H.W. Bush’s record compare favorably to all these living presidents? And is there anything you have seen in the last five years that suggests Obama would have been the man you want presiding over the disintegration of the Soviet Union or the reunification of Germany?

Bush-Dole Republicans were not creative. They were in a very real sense tax collectors for the welfare state, in Gingrich’s apt phrase. They tended not to be the kind of leaders who could connect well with the American people during tough economic times, which is precisely why

Bob Dole was never president and Bush was only one for a single term.

But they were serious about governing in a way that many of today’s direct-mail Republicans are not. An effective conservatism will transcend the older Republicanism’s flaws while recovering its lost virtues.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?