The Vision Thing: A Past President's Achilles Heel

George H.W. Bush, the nation’s 41st President died last week, at age 94, the longest-lived in American history, although Jimmy Carter will break that record if he lives for another five months.  The mainstream media, most of whom treated Bush with varying degrees of scorn, ridicule, and occasional hatred back in the day, have mostly bent over backwards to heap praise upon his memory today.  Conservative and Republican-leaning media have stressed the former President’s undeniable human decency, while liberal outlets have praised mistakes like Justice David Souter, and legislative errors like the Clean Water Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, that bonanza for ambulance chasing personal injury lawyers.  Some members of the liberal media, the always wrong E.J. Dionne in particular, have labeled the former President as a “Burkean Conservative”, celebrating Mr. Bush for his cautious center-right leanings, which supposedly saved the nation after eight years of dangerous Reaganite true-conservative excess.  These tributes might have been more convincing if those who now celebrate Mr. Bush would admit that they didn’t always like him, but no matter. 

It is customary when a great man passes away to stress his virtues, and to downplay his mistakes, as, out of common courtesy, one does not speak ill of the dead.  Those who have noted President Bush and his shortcomings have pointed out that he sometimes trusted his opponents, especially Pat Moynihan and Dick Gephardt, a little too much, and some noted, too, that Bush never felt any kinship with the movement conservatives, whom he considered a noisy distraction, who got in the way of his governing the country.  Still, few commentators have noted that the 41st President’s most significant handicap, one that he, himself, identified in 1987, namely the lack of “…the vision thing”.

Before we plunge into a discussion of this somewhat misunderstood, and certainly terminologically-challenged phenomenon, we must understand a few facts for background purposes.  The late President Bush was, as most people know, a walking Curriculum Vitae of honors, positions, and achievements.  He became the U.S. Navy’s youngest pilot in 1942, and he served gallantly during the Second World War.  After time spent in the oil industry, Bush moved into public life, serving two terms in Congress, a stint as the Republican National Committee chairman, Director of the CIA, and American envoy to the People’s Republic of China.  Bush, though, had never been associated with a movement or an idea.  He had usually served capably in appointed, not elected, positions, and those positions were mostly of secondary importance, leading some to question whether he was up to the challenge of leadership.  In fact, Mr. Bush resembled some Republican figures of the past, namely William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon in fashioning impressive records, only to find that the Presidency is an entirely different affair. 

In any event, Bush noted that his biggest problem, when seeking the Presidency on his own, was the fact that he had no overarching goal or plan for the nation.  He couldn’t quite put this into words, so he dismissed it as “…the vision thing…”, and assumed that all would work out for the best.  It all started well enough, when Bush won a very comfortable election victory in November of 1988. 

Yet, in the end, the lack of the “vision thing” caused Bush to lose his bearings on numerous occasions.  He could not imagine American victory in the Cold War, so he worked with the Russian leadership to keep the Soviet Union intact, contravening the greatest achievement of his old boss, Ronald Reagan.  He could not envision a world infused by entrepreneurial energy, free of big government and high taxes, so he allowed Moynihan and Gephardt to maneuver him into the tax increase of 1990.  He could not envision a world in which federal agencies like OSHA, HHS, and the Environmental Protection Agency were not sticking their noses into everyone’s business, so he became, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “The Regulatory President”.

Throughout all this, Bush maintained his temper, his sense of proportion, and his decorum, but was attacked for seeming aloof, and distant.  He saw the Presidency as a business of supporting good legislation and sensible policy but could not rise above the role of the tinkerer or the national mechanic-technician.  If you were expecting Bush to be a Roosevelt, a Kennedy, or a Reagan, you were out of luck.  He was more in the mold of a Gerald Ford, in terms of  being well-meaning, and somewhat successful, but hardly inspiring.  So, a good man and a passable President, has now departed this world, and God grant him rest.  Though a man of limited “vision”, Bush served his country honorably and ably.  That is an epitaph for a life well lived!