George Herbert Walker Bush was president when I was in high school. While my beliefs were beginning to take shape, I volunteered on both his election and re-election efforts, where the culture wars figured prominently. Whether the issue was the death penalty, the Cold War, or affirmative action, the dispute was between old school patriotism and his opponents’ full spectrum critique of America as a source of evil in the world, overly repressive of sexual minorities, and insufficiently penitent of its sins of racism.
While George H.W. Bush won his 1988 campaign as the successor to Ronald Reagan, ultimately he governed as a mostly nonideological patrician WASP from the Northeast, a product of the culture that used to define the high culture of America more generally.
The Way of the WASP
WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but the meaning is something more precise. Richard Brookhiser wrote a useful book on the subject in 1991: The Way of the WASP. He defined “the way of the WASP” as a number of closely related values, including conscience, civic-mindedness, industry, and anti-sensuality.
The most important in Brookhiser’s telling was conscience, “the great legacy of Protestantism.” Conscience means not self-expression, but rather a commitment to doing the right thing, even when it is difficult, unpopular, or unpleasant. Civic-mindedness is the “operation of conscience in social relations.” As the late Lawrence Auster put the matter, civic-mindedness means that “honor, family, [and] group take a back seat to the good of society.” Anti-sensuality was a counsel of self-restraint, which we see demonstrated by wealthy WASPs riding around in 20-year-old Buicks and, more relevantly, through the intact families and high-trust communities that once characterized America.
Bush exemplified the WASP virtues. He volunteered to serve in the Navy during World War II at the age of 18, eventually earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. He later went into the oil business, served in Congress, and then as the U.N. ambassador, director of the CIA, Ronald Reagan’s vice president, and ultimately as president of the United States. He was a low-key, competent, and hands-on leader. The media called him a “wimp,” a terrible insult for a man who was shot down in the service of his country. Most of his media critics were smoking pot in college and protesting the Vietnam War at the same age.
The Caretaker President
One of the themes of his presidential campaigns was that he “did not do the vision thing.” If Reagan was the ideological warrior, tackling both big government and cultural decline, Bush’s life and politics were those of the post-World War II consensus: a bipartisan commitment to containing Soviet communism, maintaining the New Deal welfare state, and accommodating social changes, including the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and ’60s. Thus he was a small “c” conservative, devoted to keeping the ship afloat without any particular view of the destination.
In the 1980 presidential primary, Bush opposed Ronald Reagan, expressing skepticism of his tax-cutting mantra under the rubric “Voodoo Economics.” This term eventually became a rallying cry of Reagan’s critics.
The world shifted underneath Bush’s feet during his one and only term as president. The Soviet Union began the process of collapse, and the Berlin Wall came down. He had prepared his entire life to manage the Cold War national security apparatus in opposition to the Soviets. Instead, the enemy was in full-scale collapse.
While “movement conservatives” at the time criticized Bush’s reluctance to risk instability by “rolling back” the Soviets and punishing the ex-Communists for their crimes, his instincts, as well as those of his WASP Secretary of State James Baker, appear wholly sound in retrospect.
The big fear at the time was the Soviets would become “Yugoslavia with nukes,” as each of the constituent republics tangled with ethnic squabbles and their future relations with the independent Russian Republic. The value of stability and peace are underrated, and Bush’s management of this process, which included brokering a deal to keep the nuclear arsenal solely in Russia’s hands, likely prevented what could have been a disastrous meltdown.
Similarly, whether in Panama or the First Gulf War, Bush’s foreign policy pursued limited, realist aims: removing a troublesome, drug-running dictator in one case and preventing a hostile, unstable country from getting its hands on the world’s largest supply of oil in the other. Instead of seeking to depose Saddam Hussein—as his son would do under the influence of the neoconservatives—he ceased offensive operations after Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait.
Lacking guideposts for the new era, Bush did proclaim commitment to a New World Order, a dubious goal of maintaining the United States as the sole superpower while using the United Nations as cover to disguise this state of affairs. The phrase itself fueled the paranoid fringe and became a bogeyman of the militia movement during the 1990s. Nonetheless, the concept, its meaning, and its application were modest during Bush’s presidency, and he generally was reluctant to get involved in messy quagmires such as Yugoslavia, unlike his successor, Bill Clinton.
Domestically, Bush showed a lack of commitment to Reagan’s domestic policy and always had an uneasy relationship with the conservatives. He never seems to have thought the fight against “big government” was critical, nor did he embrace the vaguely libertarian rejection of interference with private businesses. He had the views of a man of his background: moderate and avoidant of conflict, even in the face of a relentless cultural and political opponent.
He adopted the 1989 assault weapon import ban, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 1991 Civil Rights Act (which undid various Supreme Court precedents that limited disparate impact claims). He also enacted NAFTA, which proved controversial and had much to do with the loss of the loyalties of the white working class, whom Reagan had brought into the Republican fold. Worst of all, he betrayed his promise of “no new taxes” by acceding to tax increases in the middle of a recession. Combined, this led to a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan and Bush’s eventual defeat in the 1992 election.
The WASP Class is Displaced
Bush exemplified the broader inability and unwillingness of the WASPs to control events in the post-war era. The height of their power—the age of John Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower, and Adlai Stevenson—was also the turning point.
The postwar era saw the introduction of Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals, and minorities into the nation’s elite, a product of the WASPs’ own commitment to competence and ability over lineage. These newcomer groups’ tendencies—conservative, liberal, and radical respectively—would define most of the postwar era’s political fights, with the WASPs largely abandoning the field, retreating into their increasingly irrelevant social organizations and country clubs.
The WASP ruling class was the chief loser and perceived enemy in the culture war. Under attack, they lost confidence and willingness to defend themselves and their position, demonstrating through their actions that they thought somehow their good example alone was sufficient rebuttal to the changes of the times and the charges of their critics. Bush’s stately loss to Clinton—with the help of old family enemy Ross Perot dividing the Republican vote—was the epitome of WASP class. But it was a loss nonetheless.
Bush continued to exemplify the WASP virtues in his post-presidency. He generally avoided criticism of his successor, was not a prominent figure on the campaign trail for his son, and eventually cooperated with ex-president Clinton in various charitable endeavors. His example of non-ideological public service and restraint largely has been rejected by his Democratic successors.
During Bush’s presidency and following the devolution of the Soviet Union, one could say unironically that we had reached the “end of history.” The disputes, issues, and scope of politics were narrower. While demographic changes had begun, their impact on electoral politics and the culture was minimal. It seemed that way, right until 9/11, when issues of immigration, identity, and security became dominant.
Bush stands in marked contrast to every president that succeeded him. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Trump are all baby boomers, whose need to leave a “generational mark,” rejection of the old ways, and commitment to authenticity (which old WASPs would see as vulgarity) are defining characteristics. Obama was a late Baby Boomer, but he was more defined by his far left politics and racial background. Nonetheless, those politics were explicitly a rejection of the old WASP order.
One might think WASPs and their values remain relevant; after all, Clinton and George W. Bush are technically WASPs. But they each come from the evangelical tradition, which incorporated the modern, ’60s-era embrace of self-expression, sentimentality, and epoch-changing social justice. The evangelicals, though technically WASPs, enacted a revolt against the staid, quiescent, and largely accommodationist approach of the “mainline” Protestant churches to the cultural changes of the Vietnam War era.
In the end, both Clinton and W. were each more concerned with “making history” than with honoring it. Clinton was drawn to various “idealistic” wars, including interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush would not simply attack al-Qaeda, but had to “spread democracy” in the Middle East. Trump with his bull-in-a-chinashop lack of decorum, while defensible in light of the stakes, is more ethnic New York than WASP, even though he comes from a patrician, Northern European background.
George H.W. Bush was not terribly ideological, even though he learned his voters were. Rather, he approached the office with a sense of awe and treated the country with a sense of filial love and devotion. He was content to keep the ship of state afloat and had no particular need to stay on the stage when his service was over. In this sense, his life and presidency are a lesson about the end, not of history, but of the way of the WASP.
Photo Credit: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images)