Time to reconsider the George H.W. Bush presidency? New Sununu book makes the case

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·Chief National Correspondent
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President George H.W. Bush and White House chief of staff John Sununu disembark Air Force One after returning from a trip in 1991. (Photo: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

HAMPTON FALLS, N.H. — George H.W. Bush has always had a hard time getting respect.

He was mocked during his time in office with a Newsweek magazine cover that discussed his “wimp factor.” His presidency is often remembered as one that couldn’t sustain the Reagan dynasty and which frittered away high approval ratings after a successful war in the Middle East by breaking a promise to never raise taxes.

Now a new book by Bush’s former chief of staff, John H. Sununu, argues that Bush’s presidency was far more successful, and consequential, than he is given credit for. He may have been a nice guy who didn’t win reelection, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as finishing last, Sununu argues.

Legacy-burnishing books by members of a past administration are pretty par for the course. But Sununu’s shouldn’t be dismissed just because he has a rooting interest in the subject of his story. The former three-term governor of New Hampshire makes a persuasive argument in “The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H.W. Bush” that Bush’s legacy should be reconsidered, marshaling an impressive array of details and facts to support his case.

Two main themes animate Sununu’s case. First, Sununu writes, Bush’s quiet, humble style, his belief in the importance of personal diplomacy, and his ability to get along with others and reach compromise were crucial to easing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition in Eastern Europe from communist rule. Those qualities also were key to assembling the coalition that helped push Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. And, he argues, they made it possible for Bush to productively work with the overwhelmingly Democrat-controlled Congress.

Second, Sununu unpacks the events that led up to Bush signing a tax increase into law in 1990, in violation of his famous “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge during the 1988 presidential campaign. Newt Gingrich, a Republican member of Congress who would go on to become speaker of the House, gets particular blame, according to Sununu. Gingrich, Sununu writes, was responsible for personal income tax rates going up because he torpedoed a deal Bush had reached with Democrats in Congress to reduce the deficit and reform entitlements, which included only an increase in the gasoline tax. This left Bush having to sign a less favorable deal.

Sununu also touts Bush’s accomplishments on the environment, pointing out that Bush is responsible for the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, which curbed acid rain, urban air pollution and toxic air emissions, and authorized a cap and trade system to enforce the law.

The interesting subtext to Sununu’s book is the implication that the Reagan years were not the unquestionable success that many Republicans remember them as. In particular, Sununu laments the lack of spending discipline and the growth in the size of government under Reagan.

“Reagan’s defense buildup had overstressed the budget, and the economy was paying the price. There were signs of a real slowdown,” Sununu writes of the situation that Bush inherited. In fact the economy was headed into a recession.

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Outgoing President Ronald Reagan and his chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, left, meet with President-elect George H.W. Bush and his chief of staff, John Sununu, the day before Bush’s inauguration in 1989. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Library)

Sununu credits Reagan’s defense spending with convincing the Soviets they could not compete with the U.S. But he does not cut the Republican icon any slack on his own lack of fiscal discipline.

“The Reagan administration and Congress had drifted through the last few years [of Reagan’s presidency] without any serious effort at preventing a budget crisis,” Sununu writes. “Bush genuinely believed government had gotten too big, was inefficient, and was not managed well.”

Sununu recounts his thinking upon arriving in Washington to begin planning the transition from Reagan to Bush: “The reality of the budget irresponsibility … didn’t surprise me, but the complete loss of fiscal control in Washington was a disappointment to the patriot in me.”

Bush also had to clean up Reagan’s mess in South America, Sununu writes. The Iran-Contra affair had hurt U.S. relations with governments in the region and had undermined Reagan’s relationship with Congress. Bush abandoned military support for the Contra rebels and instead worked with Congress to deliver humanitarian assistance and encourage open elections in Nicaragua, which led to the defeat of the Sandinista government.

Even Sununu’s argument that Bush was responsible for helping end the Cold War cuts against the CliffsNotes version of history, in which Reagan called for the Berlin Wall to be torn down and down it came.

“Bush recognized the need for a shift from the confrontational rhetoric of the Reagan years to a quieter, personal and more humble diplomacy that would ease tensions as they arose,” Sununu writes.

Bush did not publicly celebrate when the Berlin Wall came down, Sununu says, in order to protect Gorbachev from pressure inside the Kremlin that might have displaced the reforming leader and stopped glasnost in its tracks. And he worked closely with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand to allay their concerns about a unified Germany. Both leaders had memories of the damage inflicted on their countries in World War II by the Third Reich.

“The president used personal contact and personal telephone calls as very effective tools to build trust and understanding among the leaders with whom he had to deal,” Sununu writes.

Sununu believes that President Obama’s approach stands in stark contrast to Bush’s instinct for building strong personal relationships with the leaders of ally countries. In an interview at Sununu’s home near the New Hampshire sea coast, the 76-year old political fixture in this early primary state said that “we have had six years of the most inept, ignorant administration one could possibly have.”

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President George H.W. Bush talks on the phone to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia about the 1990 invasion of Kuwait while chief of staff John Sununu looks over his shoulder. (Photo: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

“I have never seen an administration so dumb in all my life, not understanding the importance of retaining allies, not understanding the importance of keeping one’s word with one’s allies,” he said.

Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who ran for president in 2012, is one of the biggest villains in Sununu’s telling of the Bush presidency. Sununu describes him as “glib and emotional,” and “extremely volatile,” and says he “often seemed as if he was more concerned about his own agenda than dealing with the problems facing the White House, Congress, and the nation as a whole.”

Sununu says Bush worked with Congress in 1990 to reach a budget deal that would have cut the deficit that had grown due to a slowing economy, growing spending and the savings and loan crisis. The deal had three dollars in spending reductions for every dollar of revenue increase, Sununu writes, and says most of the revenue increase came from an increase in the gas tax. There was no hiking of personal income taxes, he says. Gingrich agreed to the deal, Sununu writes, but then backed out at the last moment.

Gingrich “destroyed the deal,” and “was the principal reason why the income rate was increased from 28 percent to 31 percent in 1990,” Sununu writes. Once budget negotiations were restarted, the Democrats were intent on increasing income taxes, and Bush — operating from a weakened negotiating position — signed what they sent him.

Gingrich, in an email, was incredulous.

“Let me get this straight. Bush breaks his read my lips pledge but Sununu blames me?” Gingrich wrote. “Sununu is desperate to shift the blame for the failure to keep Bush’s word.”

Sununu has a close relationship with George H.W. Bush still, but has not gone out of his way to support either of his sons’ presidential candidacies. Sununu never endorsed George W. Bush’s presidential bid in 2000 and has not endorsed Jeb Bush’s yet either.

Sununu did expand upon a remark he made to veteran interviewer Larry King last month that Jeb is more like his mother, Barbara, than like his father.

“I think Jeb is less forgiving of slights by others,” Sununu said. “If somebody attacks George Herbert Walker Bush, Barbara remembers that forever. And I think Jeb has a little of that.”

Sununu insisted he is not going to endorse anyone in the Republican primary, though he believes the nominee should be a governor or former governor.

“Everybody’s trying to find me, get me to say something that becomes the equivalent of an endorsement, and I have too many friends running,” he said. “I am trying extremely hard not to endorse.”

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