JFK award illustrates Bush 41’s political courage

The Dallas Morning NewsApril 24, 2014 

Former President George H.W. Bush doesn’t play aerobic golf anymore. And he presumably won’t be jumping out of any planes for his 90th birthday in June.

The aging process has finally caught up with the transplanted Texan who parachuted to mark both No. 80 and No. 85 and who once played 18 holes in just 84 minutes at Kennebunkport’s Cape Arundel Golf Club.

But Bush 41, as his large circle of family, friends and admirers dubbed him to differentiate from his son President George W. Bush, still displays the civility and graciousness that made him one of the best liked and respected presidents of recent decades.

Two weeks ago, he turned up at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to greet President Barack Obama during his Texas visit. “When the president comes to your hometown, you show up to meet him,” explained Bush, looking good and displaying a firm handshake.

His visit also sent a signal that, though he and Obama are quite different politically and ideologically, the presidency deserves the respect that many of today’s partisans pointedly ignore.

That simple act reminded us again of what kind of man Bush is. And an early May ceremony in Boston will remind the nation of what kind of president he was, honoring him for perhaps his most controversial act while in the White House.

He'll receive the annual John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for helping craft the 1990 budget compromise that reversed his ill-considered 1988 campaign pledge of “no new taxes.” That act stirred bitter criticism from GOP conservatives and contributed to Bush’s 1992 defeat, but it also helped spark the prosperity of the 1990s.

“In his first term in office, President George H.W. Bush risked his reputation and ultimately his political career by forging an important compromise on the budget that moved our country forward and should not be forgotten,” said Kennedy grandson Jack Schlossberg. Schlossberg, Caroline Kennedy’s son, will present the award May 4 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Bush made the “no new taxes” pledge in accepting the GOP nomination at the 1988 convention in New Orleans, drawing wild applause.

“My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes,” Bush said, referring to Democrat Michael Dukakis. “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.’”

He repeated that riff over and over that fall, though many economic analysts felt he would ultimately have to raise taxes. Two years later, while negotiating a bipartisan deficit control plan, Bush was forced to concede that any package had to include, along with spending cuts, “tax revenue increases.”

Republican opposition initially blocked the compromise, but a revised version was ultimately approved. The incident not only split the GOP but transformed the political landscape; Republicans have opposed every proposed tax increase since.

Later, Bush acknowledged to me in an interview on the eve of opening his presidential library at Texas A&M that his initial pledge might have been the mistake, rather than his reversal.

“With the benefit of historical hindsight, I probably would have not done it the way I did it,” he said. “It was so clear and so dramatic that, when I made that compromise for reasons that I think are valid, why it really hurt much more than if I hadn’t raised it the way I had done.”

The Kennedy award bolsters the judgment that Bush’s tax reversal was a courageous act that produced primarily positive results. Along with his restrained management of the Persian Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush’s bipartisan deficit plan illustrates a record of achievement – despite the fact that he would go on to lose his re-election bid.

So happy 90th birthday, President Bush.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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