The presidency of George Bush /
John Robert Greene.
Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, c2000.
xiii, 245 p. : ill.
0700609938 (alk. paper)
More Details
Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, c2000.
0700609938 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
John Robert Greene is professor of history and communications at Cazenovia College
First Chapter

Chapter One



    In November 1996, just before his political nemesis Bill Clinton won a resounding reelection victory, George Bush was the subject of one of cable television's most popular shows, the Arts and Entertainment Network's Biography . Yet after the program was over, one would hardly have known that Bush had ever been president. The first forty-five minutes of the hour-long show were dedicated to Bush's career before 1988, the year he was elected president. The last fifteen minutes offered such a platitudinal surface treatment of his presidency as to be almost useless--most notably, the Persian Gulf War was treated in less than two minutes. As for Bush's other policy decisions, they were simply not mentioned, except to say that he had "skillfully tied himself to the successes of the Reagan years."

    It has been the fate of George Bush to be compared to his larger-than-life predecessor. Indeed, most contemporary historians have concluded that Bush's presidency was little more than an attempt to continue the policies of Ronald Reagan--policies that are almost casually referred to in history textbooks as "revolutionary." The Reagan years did bequeath to Bush a nation that had recovered from the feebleness of the 1970s. One cornerstone of Reagan's legacy was a booming economy and a newfound pride in America's place in the world. But Reagan bequeathed a much more complex heritage to his vice president. The Bush presidency was not an interregnum, coasting on the economic successes of its predecessor. Rather, the heart of the Bush presidency lay in its attempts to deal with the economic instability and cultural anxiety that the Reagan years had also created. In so doing, Bush created a legacy for himself that was just as complex as that of his predecessor, one that was far from a Reagan redux.

Americans rarely elect an ideologue as their president, instinctively fearing those who are truly convinced of the sanctity of their ideas. But in Ronald Reagan's case, America made a notable exception. Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham is correct when he maintained that Reagan was "the most ideological president, and the leader of the most ideological administration, in modern American history." In 1980 Americans elected a president who for over three decades in public life had told them in no uncertain terms that he wanted to reverse not only the path taken by his party since the end of World War II but also many of the fundamental underpinnings of American society. Reagan's stated brand of political conservatism--a conservatism that was out of step with the mainstream of his party throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s--was simple and direct. He demanded a halt to three developments in American society since the 1960s: permissiveness in the nation's social conscience, the tax burden on ordinary Americans, and the weakening of America's place as the most powerful nation in the world. His was far more than a call for a return to a "simpler time"; Ronald Reagan wanted to begin anew.

    As a result, Reagan did for conservatism what John F. Kennedy had done for liberalism--he co-opted it and energized it. As Kennedy had sparked a feeling of government service in young liberals, so too did Reagan spark the same feeling in young conservatives. Drawn to his engaging personality and his seeming rock-solid adherence to his stated principles, Americans accepted his message in near-record numbers. Believing in his message, they donated money in amounts heretofore unheard of. They also entered government in droves. Once there, these young conservative zealots, who called themselves the "true believers" (Edward Derwinski, a former congressman from Illinois who served in the Bush cabinet, called them "conservatives with a chip on their shoulder") felt that they were participating in nothing less than a political, social, and economic revolution.

On the surface, there is evidence to support this assessment. During Reagan's presidency there was a marked reaction to the permissiveness of American society and a call for a return to what many conservatives began to refer to as "traditional values." Although Reagan hardly started this trend--it had been bubbling throughout the 1970s--he had long been one of its most vocal proponents. One key to Reagan's appeal in Middle America was his devotion to the past. He often spoke out in support of a return to what he termed "Christian values" in America. And people who shared his point of view believed that they could organize under his political banner. Fund-raisers such as Richard Viguerie proved that modern marketing tactics could be used to encourage Fundamentalist Christians, who had largely sat out politics since the 1950s, to participate in the process. The Moral Majority, founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, worked diligently to elect Christians to government positions, and their many successes were one of the major stories of the 1980s.

    Reagan welcomed the support of Fundamentalist Christians and assiduously cultivated their votes. He pointed, with some amount of justification, to their political victories as evidence to support his claim that his administration had sparked a seismic change in America's social thinking. In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Reagan wistfully remembered that the move toward traditionalism had been one of the basic changes of his administration. He argued that before his election to the presidency, "The normal was portrayed as eccentric ... the irreverent was celebrated.... [Liberals] celebrated their courage in taking on safe targets, and patted each other on the back for slinging stones at a confused Goliath who was too demoralized--and, really, too good--to fight back. But now, one simply senses it: the American people are no longer on the defensive."

    In economics, Reagan also did as he promised and cut taxes. "Supply Side Economics," the mantra of Reagan conservatives, supported the belief that once personal taxes were cut, people could invest the savings. Then the government could collect enough taxes on investment income to balance the budget. There was certainly nothing new about Reaganomics--it was pure Hooverian individualism. Nevertheless, Reagan conservatives could point with pride to a series of tax cuts in the 1980s, most notably the Income Tax Act of 1981, which reduced federal rates by 10 percent over three years.

    The foreign policy of the 1970s, to Reagan, had been replete with failures of American will. He spent the balance of his term trying to reverse the feeling that was best summarized in a question asked in a 1980 cover story for Newsweek: "Has America Lost Its Clout?" The defeat in Vietnam, détente with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC), an abandonment of nationalist causes in South America, and the inability either to prevent the taking of American hostages in Iran or to secure their release were proof for Reagan conservatives that America had been allowed to become a second-rate power.

    By the end of his administration Reagan had reversed that trend. "Peace through strength" was the watchword of his administration, as Reagan presided over the greatest arms buildup in American history. His support of novel but flawed defense strategies like the Stealth bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") made it clear that this was a president who had no qualms about spending the country back to world prominence.

    This Reagan did, but a greater accomplishment was the change that he effected in the attitude of many Americans toward their country. An unfailing optimist, Reagan believed that once America was strong again, the entire nation would rally around the flag and achieve a unanimity of patriotism that had not been seen since World War II. Most Americans in the 1980s were passionately looking for a reason to abandon the pessimism of the 1960s and 1970s, and they embraced the mid-Victorian, flag-waving demeanor of their president with open arms. In a 6 April 1988 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Reagan could justifiably point to a change in the national attitude that had taken place under his watch, when he observed that "gone are the days when the United States was perceived as a rudderless superpower, a helpless hostage to world events. American leadership is back. Peace through strength is not a slogan, it's a fact of life--and we will not return to the days of hand-wringing, defeatism, decline, and despair."

The Reagan Revolution, then, was not just rhetoric, as many liberal observers have since claimed. There was a great deal of substance to its policies, and Republicans had much to crow about as they looked toward the 1990s. Yet, there was a correspondingly colder side to the Reagan years. In his seemingly sincere attempt to turn the clock back to a time when values were simpler and America's place in the world was strong and secure, Reagan unleashed a host of demons that plagued his successor.

    The windfall of the Reagan tax cuts masked the fact that those cuts were responsible for the creation of a volatile and unstable economy. Reagan seems to have expected that the savings from his tax cuts would by itself be enough to stimulate the economy. Not so. He refused to offset his tax cuts with corresponding cuts in entitlement programs--indeed, federal outlays for Medicaid were exactly the same in 1987 as they had been in 1981, and in Social Security and Medicare, outlays had actually increased. Those costs, combined with the enormous cost of the arms buildup, led to gaping deficits. Despite preaching a balanced budget (from his 1981 Inaugural Address: "You and I, as individuals can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but only for a limited time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we're not bound by that same limitation?"), the federal debt tripled during Reagan's tenure to more than $2.7 trillion a year--the highest in American history. By 1988 the payment on the interest alone was $140 billion a year. In the 1980 presidential primary, George Bush had predicted such a result when he branded Reagan's plan as "voodoo economics." Faced with a political dilemma, Reagan took the advice of several of his advisers and quietly approved "revenue enhancements" in 1982, 1983, and 1984--increased taxes on tobacco and alcohol user fees on many federal services, and an increase in the Social Security payroll tax.

    As important as the deficit was the fact that because of Reaganomics, the gap between rich and poor in America was getting wider. Adherents of the theory that became popularized as trickle-down economics believed that the Reagan tax cuts would spur the economy to the point that excess monies would be able to trickle down to the poor and underprivileged. But for many people, this was a pipe dream; entertainer "Weird Al" Yankovic quipped that "the overprivileged were trickling down all over the underprivileged." In his prescient analysis of the effect of Reaganomics on American society, The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath , Kevin Phillips noted that in 1988 the top half of 1 percent of the population of the United States had never been richer. In 1988 approximately 1.3 million Americans were millionaires; indeed, one source counted some 100,000 decamillionaires--people worth $10 million or more. By 1988 these Americans controlled 44 percent of the nation's income share--their highest percentage since 1949. However, the average family did not keep pace with the top income bracket. In fact, the median family income nosedived under Reagan, recovering in 1987 only to 1973 levels. The reason was simple enough: although wages were rising, so were prices. Only one-half of the nation's families were able to maintain their standard of living in the 1980s, and that was usually because both parents worked.

    Reagan's economic policies were criticized by liberals as succeeding at the expense of the poor and minorities. But in reality it was poor whites who were being hurt the most. In 1981 a total of 13 percent of Americans lived below the established poverty line; in 1986 it was 13.6 percent. In that time, the number of African Americans and Hispanics in that group had actually fallen, but the number of whites had risen. Blue-collar whites felt the pinch long before Reagan left the White House. In the Rust Belt, unemployment was at 58 percent; throughout the country, farm incomes dropped to 1970 levels. In January 1988, the week of Reagan's State of the Union Address, 72 percent of the people polled believed that rich Americans were better off than in 1981 and that the poor had lost ground.

    There was never any question that liberals would also denounce Reagan's foreign policy. It was a bit of an uphill battle for them, as they were flying in the face of a rampant patriotism that resulted from Reagan's flag-waving. However, in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, liberal critics made their strongest case against the administration. With the much more than tacit approval of their president, White House aides had sold arms to Iran--a nation that only months before had been an American enemy. The purpose of the sales was to obtain the support of Iran in the release of American hostages held in Lebanon, although such releases never occurred. The sales were carried out in direct violation of American law, and the excess profits were secretly laundered through Israel and given to anti-Marxist freedom fighters in Nicaragua--the Contras. Administration critics saw these dealings as evidence of the continuation of a Nixonian "imperial presidency," with the chief executive reserving for himself the power to make foreign policy decisions despite laws intended to restrict his actions.

    But Reaganites ignored the investigations and denouncements in the press that accompanied the Iran-Contra revelations. Instead, they took comfort in their belief that they had finally found a president who would take a tough stand toward the Soviet Union. In 1983, in a speech before the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as "the focus of evil in the modern world" and begged Americans not to "ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire." He professed that the days of communism were numbered (during a speech in Berlin: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall") and argued that victory in the cold war was an American birthright. Throughout his first term, Reagan generally pleased conservatives not only with his sabre-rattling but also by putting the force of the American military behind his words--most notably in Grenada and Libya. It seemed that the Nixon-Ford-Carter policy of accommodation toward communism--what had been called détente--had ended.

    By the end of Reagan's second term, however, even his conservative supporters had begun to doubt his motives in foreign affairs. By 1986 the president shocked most observers by reaching out to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the father of glasnost (the encouragement of political debate) and perestroika (the stimulation of the Soviet economy by infusing doses of capitalism). By the time he left office in 1989, Reagan sounded like a moderate Republican seeking to reestablish détente. Perhaps this turnabout was caused, as some observers have suggested, by the influence of Nancy Reagan, concerned as she was about her husband's place in history. Perhaps it was as simple as the fact that Gorbachev and Reagan liked each other. James Baker, who served Reagan as both his chief of staff and his secretary of the treasury, has noted that "Gorbachev had an actor's gift to fill a stage with his presence.... Whenever we met, he exuded optimism, and in this regard, he reminded me time and time again of Ronald Reagan." For whatever the reason, at their third summit in 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev signed a treaty limiting medium-range nuclear missiles (the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), and Gorbachev agreed to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan. To many conservatives, this relationship brought back memories of Nixon's visit to both the Soviet Union and China, and of Ford's wheat treaties with the Soviets, and it smacked of heresy.

Despite the turbulence of the Reagan years, the most startling observation about the state of America during the 1980s concerns those issues that did not worry it. Robert Teeter, a Republican pollster who served four presidents, reported that although Americans were generally alarmed by the excesses of the Reagan era, they were not about to support measures they saw as liberal Democratic alternatives. Indeed, Teeter's polls showed that the public was unmoved by any single issue. Some observers even suggested that the Reagan administration was made of teflon--no criticisms stuck to it. This refusal by many Americans to challenge the administration on any of its policies--indeed, Reagan was reelected in 1984 by a near-record margin--is one of the most perplexing aspects of the history of the Reagan years.

    In many ways, the explanation for this attitude and a window into the state of the Union during the tenure of Ronald Reagan--is found in Jay McInerney's brilliant 1984 novel, Bright Lights, Big City . The main character, Jaimie Conway, is a fact-checker for a major magazine. Like many in his profession, he has aspirations of becoming a novelist. But he is a particularly shallow young man, dreaming of living a Hemingwayesque literary life at the same time that he is wallowing in the cocaine-laced lifestyle of the New York discotheque scene. Ultimately more concerned with dollars than dreams, Conway typifies the decade's young upwardly mobile urban professional--the Yuppie. In fact, McInerney implies that almost everyone in the 1980s had few qualms about shelving their dreams for a quick payday. Conway is surprised when he learns of the bitter disenchantment of Alex Hardy, the venerated--and drunken--former editor of his magazine. During a ten-martini lunch, Hardy, who knew all the greats of literature in the 1950s and 1960s, makes it clear to Conway that he has given up hope on the new generation of writers. Hardy voices his disenchantment rather gracefully: "The new writing will be about technology, the global economy, the electronic ebb and flow of wealth." The equally compelling 1987 movie based on the novel has Hardy putting it more crassly: "Money is poetry now ... write about money." The main character Gordon Gekko in another 1987 movie, Wall Street , echoes Hardy's sentiment when he proclaims that "greed, in all of its forms, is good."

    The 1980s was an age of entepreneurism that makes the Roaring Twenties pale in comparison. Not the stock market crash of October 1987 nor evidence that the nation's savings and loan companies were beginning to melt down lowered the fever of many Americans to make a quick killing. Gross private domestic investment leaped from $402 billion in 1980 to an astounding $638 billion four years later. This bull market fed a belief in academe that the study of business acumen was more worthwhile than the pursuit of humanistic learning. All over the country, college students abandoned the traditional liberal arts, the mainstay major of the 1960s and early 1970s, and instead gravitated toward programs that would earn them their MBA. It was not hard to understand why; financier Ivan Boesky spoke to the Business School at the University of California at Berkeley and encouraged the new graduates in their quest to accumulate as much wealth as possible. In 1985, one-third of the entire graduating class at Yale University tried to get jobs as financial analysts at First Boston Corporation.

    It was also an age of cultural voyeurism. If you couldn't grow wealthy from playing the market--as, we have already observed, most Americans couldn't--you could entertain yourself by watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous . It was an age of narcissistic indulgence. Billionaire entrepreneurs such as Donald Trump became pop icons; pop icon Madonna both reflected and refracted the times by proclaiming herself in song to be a "Material Girl." Indeed, the advent of the music video reflected the desire of many young Americans to sit back and watch rather than to use their imaginations while listening to a song on the radio.

    Yet there were problems far more dangerous than America's cultural voyeurism, problems that quickly turned the 1980s into an age of anxiety. Recreational drug use had tripled since the 1970s, and by the 1980s cocaine had become the Yuppie drug of choice. Each year during the decade, one in six Americans ingested an illegal substance. By 1989 more than half the American population listed drugs as a grave threat to national security. And by 1990 the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic had claimed 200,000 victims. Reagan tried to ignore it; other conservatives insisted they had told us so (Pat Buchanan wrote, "The poor homosexuals. They have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting an awful retribution"). By decade's end, there were fights in high schools over whether or not to hand out condoms at a school dance. This was a scene that Reagan conservatives did not shy away from but one that nevertheless offered little pleasure or comfort. Because of AIDS, the morality of Reaganism had to confront the very real possibility that one could die from having sex.

As aptly put by Robert Shogan, Ronald Reagan "fell short of the expectations he had created." It is unquestionable that the Reagan Revolution injured the nation's economic and social infrastructure. But that was difficult for Americans to see in 1988. Blinded by the culture of excess, few Americans worried about the deficit, AIDS, or the state of their family's values. Indeed, as Reagan ended his tenure in office, the vast majority of Americans clearly felt better about their destiny. Much of this glow was due to the calming effect of the man in charge. With his unmatched skill as a communicator, and with the simplicity of his message, Ronald Reagan was able to make most Americans think past the age of anxiety that his policies had created and concentrate instead on how good they felt about being Americans. He was, indeed, a tough act to follow.

Copyright © 2000 University Press of Kansas. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2000-01-01:
Highly respected presidential historian Greene has written what may well be the finest single volume account of the presidency of George Bush so far. Balanced, fair, and thorough, the book begins by explaining the difficult set of problems Bush inherited from Ronald Reagan--especially economic troubles. Reagan's problems, he argues, came home to roost in the Bush years. Greene argues that Bush attempted to govern with limited opportunities, that he pursued a limited agenda in large part because of them. Was Bush overcautious (as many critics contend), or, Greene asks, did he make the most out of difficult circumstances? Bush, he concludes, "made few mistakes" and left "a more than adequate legacy." And although he is sympathetic to the former president, he does not pass softly over his faults--and he admits he wouldn't call Bush a "great" president. An excellent work of contemporary history, this book is highly readable. It merits the attention of all serious students of the American presidency.--Michael A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-01-24:
Cazenovia College historian Greene's verdict on George Bush's presidency will surprise no one: Bush triumphed in foreign policy, but stumbled fatally in domestic affairs. Greene traces what he perceives as Bush's failures on the home front, starting with Ronald Reagan's troubled legacy, which included the budget deficit, the savings and loan crisis and the failure of tax cuts to trickle down. (Some of these were, ironically, the exact problems Bush anticipated during his campaign against Reagan in 1980, when he labeled the policies of his future boss "voodoo economics.") Due partly to a hostile and overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, according to Greene, Bush was unable to solve these troubles, a failure eagerly pounced upon in 1992 by Bill Clinton. Greene argues that Bush did better in foreign affairs, where he was able to capitalize on the considerable experience he had gained as ambassador to China, CIA director and vice-president. The Gulf War is described as the outstanding achievement of Bush's presidency, a smashing victory that reversed an illegal invasion, accelerated the Mideast peace process and crystallized post-Cold War international relations. Greene only briefly considers whether Bush should have taken the next step and ousted Saddam Hussein. In the end, it was Bush's misfortune to be sandwiched between two equally great communicators, the smiling Teflon movie star and the good old boy who feels everyone's pain. Bush could live up to neither the memory of one nor the promise of the other. Diminished though his legacy may be, Bush, Greene points out, "brought no discredit to the office" and produced "a nation more stable than he had inherited". A fine contribution to presidential biography, this should become the essential introduction to Bush's abbreviated, but still consequential, tenure in office. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, January 2000
Publishers Weekly, January 2000
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Main Description
How could a president have won a war and lost a reelection? For George Bush, being Commander in Chief during Desert Storm was not enough. Domestic issues, personality factors, and the vagaries of the 1992 campaign confined his presidency to a single term. John Robert Greene helps us understand why. This first comprehensive history of George Bushs administration paints a striking portrait of a "positive moderate" whose accomplishments are often underrated. Greenes is the first book to make use of the entire range of literature on the forty-first president-including the Bush Papers at the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University-and draws on key interviews with members of his administration and with George Bush himself. Greene sets Bushs presidency in the context of the Reagan years and reviews not only his foreign policy successes-notably the war with Iraq and an improved relationship with Russia-but also key domestic issues: economic recession, the much maligned "Read My Lips" tax hike, Clarence Thomass controversial Supreme Court appointment, and the enactment of bills that protected the environment and improved the lives of disabled Americans. Greene also offers an insightful analysis of Bushs bid for reelection, describing a campaign that saw conservatives abandoning Bush in droves while early signs of an economic upturn did little to defuse the Democrats advantage. Greene is particularly insightful on Bush the person, depicting the president as a man of patience and prudence who placed great value on loyalty and who was better at managing crises than he was the day-to-day demands of the presidency. He shows us the sense of humor and love of the outdoors in a man often branded an elitist or a wimp, who ultimately was never able to manipulate his public image to his advantage. The Presidency of George Bush takes into account the many facets of the Bush administration, from the spirited optimism of a thousand points of light to the unsettling vagueness of "the vision thing," and shows us a man whose careful stewardship set the tone for post-Cold War foreign policy. As Greene notes, while Bush had his critics, it was on his watch that the Cold War ended and America reasserted its military might.
Unpaid Annotation
This comprehensive history of George Bush's administration paints a striking portrait of a "positive moderate" whose accomplishments have often been underrated. 14 photos.
Publisher Fact Sheet
Paints a striking portrait of a positive yet often-underrated moderate who set the tone for post-Cold War foreign policy & successfully dealt with key domestic issues from economic recession to the enactment of bills protecting the environment & improving the lives of disabled Americans.
Table of Contents
Forewordp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
The Legacies of Ronald Reaganp. 1
"One Should Serve His Country"p. 11
"Jugular Politics"p. 27
"The Untouchables"p. 45
"A Limited Agenda"p. 61
Paying for Reaganomicsp. 79
The Pauza, "Partnership," and Panamap. 89
Desert Shieldp. 109
Desert Stormp. 129
President Bushp. 141
"The Situation Is About as Bad as It Can Be"p. 151
"The President Should Have Fired Us All"p. 165
Patience and Prudencep. 181
Notesp. 187
Bibliographical Essayp. 215
Indexp. 231
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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