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George H.W. Bush was a genuinely excellent presidentresponsible for historic achievements that are often overlooked because of the arbitrary way we value presidential legacies.
His passing, at the age of 94 on Friday, is a perfect time to take stock of his policy accomplishments and take a broader view of his career than was visible during the extended period when he and his sons were active in presidential politics. Bush’s single term was not so long ago, but he was both the last president of the generation that served in World War II and one of the last politically influential pragmatists in the Republican Party.
From domestic affairs — where he was the last president to sign a truly bipartisan “grand bargain” — to his deft foreign policy, Bush was a president who aimed for competent management rather than ideological transformation. He had a cautious outlook, but in hindsight his presidency was marked by acts of political courage.
A little over a year ago, a darker side of the elder Bush emerged. Seven women came forward individually to describe similar accounts of Bush groping or grabbing them inappropriately while taking photographs. The accusations are as recent as 2016 and date back to 1992, when a woman said Bush grabbed her rear end while taking a photo at a fundraiser for his re-election campaign. Another woman said she was 16 when Bush, then 79, did something similar to her.
These accusations were not discussed publicly or reported at the time Bush was in office. He lost his reelection in 1992 and became an ideological pariah — too moderate to be beloved as a champion of lost causes and too politically unsuccessful to be celebrated as a shrewd operator.
Yet his defeat had little to do with anything under his control. Presidential policy is important economically, but presidents have limited influence over the short-term ups and downs of the business cycle. He was done in by a sluggish recovery deliberately engineered by a Federal Reserve that, somewhat outrageously, was pursuing a policy of "opportunistic deflation" that hurt the financial interests of middle-class Americans. Millions of Americans suffered unnecessarily long spans of joblessness and sluggish job growth as a result, and Bush himself became a collateral victim of this policy, which sent him into a spiral of obscurity.