The Bush Family’s Thirty-Year Adventure — and Our Own

“I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me, passing over the periods when I did my utmost to escape from it to dwell upon those when my mind was filled with the precepts I thought I had gleaned from him.”

So wrote the great film-maker Jean Renoir at the age of 80 (in 1974), reflecting on the relationship of his movies to the work of his father, the painter Pierre August Renoir.

Who knows when, if ever, we are going to hear thoughts in this vein from George W. Bush? If the 43rd president were to report with candor — right now, today — on his devotion to father’s precepts, presumably it would be the various escape attempts upon which he would dwell.

But what will he — and we — think in 25 years?

As an inveterate believer in the usefulness of narrative, let me remind you of the broad outlines of the story so far.

The Bush family rose to political prominence with presidency of Gerald R. Ford, in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, amidst the slow collapse of the US-backed regime in South Vietnam. It was a moment of tectonic discontinuity in American politics.

All the major actors gathered then. Donald Rumsfeld. Dick Cheney. Alan Greenspan. George Bush Jr., a child of the 1960s, Dubya to his friends, not long out of Yale College and the Texas Air National Guard, was by then a student at the Harvard Business School.

Jimmy Carter’s unexpected victory in 1976 put all of them on the beach. But four years later, Reagan elbowed George Bush out of the way for the nomination, then named him his vice presidential running-mate partly to placate party moderates.

All concerned soon discovered they were riding a worldwide movement — a turn towards markets and away from administration that even now is little understood. Forget Détente. China was decentralizing its heavily planned economy — “taking the capitalist road.” The Soviet Union was coming apart after 75 years of Communist Party rule. The Cold War was ending.

George H. W. Bush arrived in office promising kinder-gentler and no-new-taxes, but he paid far closer attention to foreign affairs than to domestic ones. He presided over the US response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and the squelching of a Chinese democratic movement in Tiananmen Square. He demonstrated a remarkably sure touch throughout.

Then in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, posing a unique challenge in the post-Cold War world. The first President Bush responded carefully. He prepared the battlefield, mustered international support for a coalition army, and raised taxes on the eve of war.

And when the allied forces quickly rolled up the Iraqi army, he stopped short of marching on Baghdad. In what he took to be a “new world order,” Bush didn’t throw the United States’ weight around. But because couldn’t manage his domestic advisers, or make the case himself for his economic policies, a shallow recession was allowed to linger and George H. W. Bush lost the 1992 election to an opportunistic Bill Clinton.

Clinton promptly followed Bush’s lead — that is, he raised taxes and, under severe pressure from insurgent House Speaker New Gingrich, narrowed the deficit. He enjoyed a lengthy boom.

Bush Junior took up the cudgel to avenge his father when it came clear a relatively moderate Republican had a good chance of regaining the White House. He campaigned as a man who had successfully managed the fundamentalist right as governor of Texas. It was just enough to get him over the top.

But, as is well-known, Bush 43 (he is the 43rd president) then made two striking departures from the policies of Bush 41 — one on foreign policy, the other on domestic finance. First he led the fight in Congress to cut taxes dramatically, as he had promised, despite a looming revenue shortfall of significant but manageable proportions.

Then, when the attack on the 9/11/01 attack on World Trade Center presented him with an opportunity to declare unilaterally against what he termed an “axis of evil,” he didn’t hesitate to do so — he moved swiftly as well.

Early success in driving the Taliban rulers from power in Afghanistan emboldened him to take on his father’s old enemy, Saddam Hussein, in hopes of breaking a long-festering stalemate in the Middle East.

And at the very outbreak of war, he cut taxes some more.

The big difference between Bust 41 and Bush 43 has to do with the strategic setting. The first President Bush presided over the dangerous emergence of a tenuous peace. The second President Bush has responded to the equally dangerous outbreak of a queer kind of war — a second Cold War, one in which the powerless confront the powerful by any possible means.

The first Bush distinguished himself mainly by what he didn’t do. The second will be known someday for what he did. And it seems to me entirely possible that Bush will one day reach a conclusion rather like that of Jean Renoir, at least with respect to his foreign policy:

“When I started to make films I went out of my way to repudiate my father’s principles; but, strangely, it is precisely in the productions where I thought I had avoided Renoir’s aesthetics that his influence is most apparent.”

It is easy enough to identify the philosophy that was shared by the Renoirs, pere et fils: a love of proportion, of simplicity, a sense of the interdependence of the social world. So what might the Bushes have in common after all? A preoccupation with a sense of responsibility, I would say. Both men knew when to act — or so, I suspect, history may conclude.

What about Bush’s other apparent departure from his father’s precept? On the matter of fiscal policy, it seems likely that he will be remembered as a man so determined to escape his father’s fate that be committed an enormous blunder in the process.

You don’t cut taxes when you go to war — not if you want people (especially your enemies) to take you seriously. You raise them. Everyone but the tax-crazies knows that. The trouble is the tax-crazies helped elect Bush, and they are crucial to his re-election.

The one-term Bush wore his principles on his sleeve. The two-term Bush — and that is likely the way he will be known forever, since foreign policy will dominate the 2004 election — eventually will be dismissed like Harry Truman.

Only in time will the terrible necessity of the choices that he has made come clear. This Bush is not much of a talker, and his West Texas ways are infuriating. But he has principles, too.