Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Reading Lips: How JFK Award for Courage is a Major Re-Writing of George Bush, Sr.'s History

by Nomad

Ex-president George H.W. Bush recently received an award for his courage in putting aside partisan politics and in raising taxes. In doing so, it was said at the ceremony, Bush the election in 1992. However, to those of us who actually witnessed these events, this rewriting of history comes as quite a shock.

Why was George Bush, sr. a one-term president? Was it all about his courage.. or was it about his dishonesty?

Profile in Courage?
Sometimes historical revisionism plunges into enters into the world of total fabrication.
The other day, I was dismayed to see an article about an awards ceremony held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. President George H.W. Bush was given the 2014 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. Of course, awards for former presidents are a dime a dozen, but what struck me was the reason. 
Former President George H.W. Bush was honored Sunday with a Kennedy "courage" award for agreeing to raise taxes to confront a spiraling deficit, jeopardizing his presidency that ended after just one term.
Really? When Carter was a one-term president, it was because he was an incompetent. With Papa Bush it was because he was too courageous. It is the first time I have heard this spin on the historical record.
The award crossed generations and political parties. It was given by Jack Schlossberg, son of the late Democratic president's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, to Lauren Bush, granddaughter of the former Republican president.

Conservatives denounced Bush for raising taxes, breaking a key promise in his successful 1988 campaign for the White House.

Schlossberg said the award recognizes Bush for taking action, even if it was unpopular.

"We celebrate courage today, in a moment of profound change and challenge, in a world gripped by partisan gridlock and inaction," he said.
Jack Schlossberg and Lauren Bush, whether they know it or not, are participating in a bizarre species of political fraud.  Whatever their motivations- presumably to shame Congress out of its long intransigence- both Schlossberg and Bush had really ought to do a little more historical research on the matter. (Especially Yale-graduate Schlossberg whose family connections might actually count for something.) 

At the awards ceremony last week, Lauren Bush told the audience:
"America's gain was President Bush's loss, and his decision to put country above party and political prospects makes him an example of a modern profile in courage that is all too rare."
To say that George H.W. Bush took the unpopular stand of raising taxes and therefore deserves our praise is a nausea-inducing spinning of the history. It is almost a little too much for one who actually lived during those days- unlike both of these two innocents- to stomach.

Read My Lips
Telling there was one once-famous phrase that was missing from the congratulatory speeches the other day. And no wonder.
Before we get to that, we must first a refresher history lesson.

When Reagan's vice-president decided to run for president in 1988, there were a few major problems. One main problem was that Bush was so obviously not Reagan. Not in style and not in policy.

As vice-president, Bush had never claimed to be the conservative Reagan was. As Reagan knew, Americans like their visions bold- even when they are merely re-packaged or fuzzy ideas. Bush really had nothing new to offer. "More of the same" is hardly a rousing campaign rallying cry. "More Reagan without Reagan" isn't much better.

It was in fact a battle with his political history. In 1980 Bush had campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination against Reagan. During that time, he had gone on record as saying some pretty biting remarks about Reagan's economic proposals. Candidate Bush had openly expressed his doubts about conservatism and even dared to call Reaganomics "voodoo economics"- meaning that Reagan's ideas were based on wishful and unrealistic thinking. Whether the observations were accurate or not, it was not something Americans wanted to hear.

Apparently it never occurred to Bush that those words would come back to haunt him. (As we shall see, this was George H.W. Bush's fatal flaw.)

Ultimately, in the 1980 election Bush turned out to be both a loser and then a winner. He lost the nomination to Reagan but was- rather surprisingly- made Reagan's running mate. It had to have been a little uncomfortable given his past denunciations. Conservatives, therefore had every right to question Bush's commitment to Reagan's vision. 
Now in 1988, Bush was on his own. Being vague and riding Reagan's coattails would not suffice.

But there was another problem.
Regardless of his political views, the public perception of Bush was that he lacked the charisma and charm of Reagan. With his tinny voice and passive manner, he came across as officious and weak-kneed. When compared to Reagan, Bush was not the kind of leadership America conservatives were looking for.

To rectify this, Bush advisors apparently encouraged the candidate to talk tough. Bush underwent an extreme image makeover which included defiant gestures. (See photo.) 
Bush also changed his language. Throughout the election he implied that he would continue the Reagan legacy and part of that legacy as far as conservative were concerned, was low taxes.
Thus, Bush against his better judgment became an anti-tax crusader, bolstering the very policies that he had, eight years earlier, mocked.

So, at   the  1988 Republican National Convention as he accepted the nomination on August 18. he declared that under no circumstances would he raise taxes. There was absolutely no wiggle room for that.

"Read my lips. No.. new...taxes" was a phrase delivered to him by speechwriter Peggy Noonan. Incidentally, the line was actually stolen from the popular tough guy film "Dirty Harry."
The anti-tax position was in fact part of the Republican platform so Bush wasn't saying anything that everybody at the convention would have been stunned to hear. As he well knew, it was music to their ears. 
On one level, the quote was meant to soothe the fears of the skeptical conservatives. On another level, the phrase established Bush as a firm leader who would not- come what may- buckle under pressure.

His Democratic challenger took a completely different position. Michael Dukakis Governor of Massachusetts,  reasoned with the American people openly. If necessary, taxes would be raised. but only as a last resort.  
To this Bush sneered:
"I'm the one who will not raise taxes. My opponent now says he'll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. But when a politician talks like that, you know that's one resort he'll be checking into. My opponent, my opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And The Congress will push me to raise taxes and I'll say no. And they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say, to them, read my lips: no new taxes."
Dukakis' Fatal Choice
Few politicians are expected to be absolutely honest during a campaign. This perhaps was one of  Dukakis' misjudgments. He made many others. On the issue of taxes, Dukakis had leveled with the American people. It was a gamble that he would regret.  Indeed, it was one significant factor in Dukakis' landslide loss in 1988. Years later, Dukakis gave this assessment about the campaign.
I was also obviously not a fan of [President Ronald] Reagan’s economic policies and it was also very clear even though there was a bit of an up-tick in the economy in 1988 that sooner or later running the government on a credit card was going to bring us to grief – and in point of fact it did shortly after Bush defeated me and took over as President.
As vice-president and Reaganomics skeptic, Bush must have known quite well that it was only a matter of time before taxes would have to be raised. There was no getting around it. He must have been aware that the soaring budget deficit was unsustainable. Reaganomics, whatever its short-term benefits, simply would not work in the long term.
This was something that candidate Bush- whose only read recommendation came from harvesting Reagan's legacy- could not confess to the American people. To admit that Reagan's economic miracle was an illusion was not what conservatives wanted to hear. So Bush found himself trapped in a corner.
With no other option, in contrast to Dukakis, Bush had decided to misrepresent the true state of the economy in order to win the election.

Saddest of all, the American people thought they were being asked to choose between raising taxes and not raising taxes. On that basis, the voters made their decision. They had every reason to believe that Bush- who had stated his position so vigorously at the convention- would keep his word. 
It was a naive assumption. 
Both sides of the political spectrum, from Democratic liberals to Reagan conservative were soon to learn how easily Bush could reverse his position. 

The Bush Betrayal
After much haggling in budget negotiations with the Democratically-controlled Congress in 1990, Bush agreed with moderates from both parties that that tax increases were necessary. All that tough talk at election time only two years before crumbled in a radical policy shift.

In the award giving speech the other day, the allegation was made that conservatives were furious at Bush when, a few months later, Bush raised taxes. Not absolutely untrue but certainly not totally true. Both parties and most Americans were outraged. They had been duped by Bush lies and the voters had believed him.
That was the perception at the time.

Until the last few years, until the revisionist began their labors, the whole regrettable "Read my lips" debacle was an example of the kind of ill-fated ambition that has plagued the Republican party since the days of Nixon.

Say anything, promise anything to win the election. Things can be sorted out after the election. People forget. American people were too stupid to remember anything from campaign to campaign. And when they have no other option, people forgive their politicians for lying.
Most of the time that's true.    

Courage or Dishonesty?
In the book "The Rhetorical Presidency of George H. W. Bush"  by Martin J. Medjhurst,  the author suggests that Bush, despite his adamant tone during the campaign, had serious problems with honesty
While the long shadow of Reagan was a psychological barrier to Bush, no less problem was his own attitude about public communication and campaign rhetoric in particular. ... After four years in the presidency, the most memorable phrase associated with George Bush were words he had uttered during the course of the 1988 campaign. Perhaps the most notorious of those phrases was "Read my lips, no new taxes" - notorious because of course because he subsequently did raise taxes. This, in turn led to the whole question of credibility and for good reason.
If anything, it turned out to be a peek into the mind of a very ambitious politician who would say or do anything to be president.
Most people still believe there is (and ought to be) a direct relationship between what a person says and what that person subsequently does. The electorate took the "no new taxes" pledge as a promise based on what Bush really believed about taxes. In other words, the American people made an assumption about his character, the type of person he was and his personal belief system. When Bush broke his pledge, he sent a message not just about his tax policies, but about his own character as well.
And even more revealing,  Bush's own private notes seem to be oblivious to this very fundamental fact. It suggests that Bush was always ready to abandon his campaign promises, even one as declaration as the "read my lips" sound bite.
That Bush simply does not understand the relationship between public rhetoric and personal credibility is amply demonstrated in his own book, All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and other writings.

In that book, Bush records a diary entry from March 30, 1989, following a meeting with his economic advisors: "I tell him [Richard Darman, head of the Office of Management and Budget] that I can't raise taxes this go around and it will be very hard in the future but I want to see the options. I'm not going to be held up by campaign rhetoric."
But there's more damning evidence which suggests Bush knew the risks he was taking with his "read my lips" rhetoric before he made his speech.

Darman had actually crossed out that notorious phrase at the 1992 Republican convention speech. He warned that an absolute pledge would not be wise. According to  John Robert Greene's book,  "The Presidency of George Bush," Darman crossed out the  "read my lips" pledge from Noonan's speech and wrote in the margins of the initial draft that the phrase  calling it "stupid and dangerous." He warned that the president could find his administration "handcuffed" at a later date.
And that's exactly what happened. 
Bush should have listened to that wise advice. Darman knew what he was talking about. He had been one of the architects of Reagan's 1982 tax increase. It had required a great deal of finesse but Reagan had the political skills to things over. Bush, on the other hand, was not Reagan.

In the end,  Darman was overruled by other Bush advisors, especially. Roger Ailes,  today's president of Fox News. The justification as that this promise would solidify conservative support for a candidate.    

Medhurst concludes based on that quote that, "to George Bush, the pledge not to raise taxes was nothing more than 'campaign rhetoric,' something that, apparently could be abandoned at will." 
Medhurst writes:
Bush clearly did not see the relationship between public rhetoric and personal integrity. Indeed he repeatedly separated the two, as though what one said had no impact on one's future action or how one might expect to be judge.
The book also relates how his own White House staffers were able to see how damaging this attitude could be. David Demarest, director of the president's Office of Communications, later recalled:
As hard as that is to believe- that the communications director .. doesn't know that the president is considering- and is about to dispose the most resonating line from his 1988 campaign- it was incredible. ...

Politically it was a disaster. It was the ticking time bomb of '92.
Despite the revisionism of today, courage had nothing to do with it. Bush's betrayal of his promise left him more or less defenseless when he ran against Bill Clinton in 1992. Going after Clinton, as Bush attempted to do, for being untrustworthy and they he would raise taxes, was clearly a political no-go, under the circumstances.

As shown in the photo, ultra-Conservative Republican candidate Patrick Buchanan did not hesitate to remind voters that Bush had deceived them four years earlier. 

Historians argue that Bush became a one-term president simply because he had lost credibility when it came to the economy. In short,  because he could not be trusted. The argument, which Bill Clinton capitalized on in the 1992 election, was that if Bush lied so blatantly about taxes, how could anybody believe anything Bush said?

 As it turned out, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, the issue of trust and integrity was one that would come back to haunt President Clinton. 

All of this could be dismissed as giving a meaningless award to a politician in his declining years. It must have taken some time to find a basis for a courage award when it came to Bush and this excuse was good enough to people who were ignorant of history. It laughable and pathetic and shameful, to be sure.

However there is a more serious side. The award reinforces the all too common idea that, for ambitious politicians, lying to the public is perfectly okay. 

The message of this award ceremony appears to be that you never need to worry that someday you will pay a price for your lies. The historical record can be erased, massaged and spun to mean whatever the people in power want it to mean. Basically, a former president was given an courage award for brazenly lying to the American people. In doing so, the whole event was given a stamp of approval and very few people seemed to notice. 

Is that really the right message we as Americans want to sent to Washington? That blatantly lying to win an election somehow equals courage?