US election memories 2: 1988

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You might want to skip this blog.

It’s about George HW Bush (or as he was known then “George Bush”). That is, The Boring One.

Like episodes of the US sitcom Friends, US presidents can be easily identified in this way. There’s The Corrupt One Who Resigned, The Cool One Who Got Shot, The One Who Couldn’t Walk and many more. The only downside is there are too many eligible for the title The Stupid One.

To be fair the first Mr Bush was not actually stupid. This makes him unique along with Eisenhower amongst post-war US Republican presidents in being neither stupid nor a crook.

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“What’s wrong with being a boring kinda guy?” he admitted and he had a point. You can’t have two Nixons, two Reagans or two Clintons in a row. You need someone dull in between. In Britain, we went for the similarly nice but dull John Major around this time. Two Thatchers in a row would have finished us off.

It was also a sensitive time on the international stage. Someone like Reagan or the second Bush would have been a disaster in the delicate period which saw the Berlin Wall come down, the USSR collapse, Apartheid end in South Africa and UN forces liberate Kuwait. Someone like George W Bush would have ignored the UN and escalated the war disastrously into Iraq without any thought as to the likely consequences. In fact, later on he did just that.

The 1988 elections did grab my interest though. I was only eleven and I hadn’t even noticed that the nation which had produced Garbage Pail Kid  stickers had elections before. The large number of contenders involved grabbed my interest. It also didn’t hurt that British politics looked fairly dull at the time with Thatcher looking invincible as she approached a full decade in power.

I was less partisan then and thus more detached. The Republicans were torn between Bush and grumpy old Bob Dole who lost support after snarling that the Veep should “quit lying about his record” something that made him look like a sore loser after a primary defeat. There were others. Evangelist Pat Robertson represented the Religious Right lunatic fringe. The fact that Rupert Murdoch backed him tells us two things: one, that Murdoch wielded very little influence in the US back then. Another that Murdoch contrary to myth does not back winners, just people who share his own reactionary views.

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Who would oppose Bush? The Democrats were unkindly referred to as the “seven dwarves”, a funny reference even though there were actually more than seven of them and they were not all short.

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Michael Dukakis (in fact, only 5 ft. 6) emerged as the nominee. People don’t tend to remember presidential election losers and while I’m sure many Americans remember him, I doubt many Britons do. “Duke” is even less famous than many of those who opposed him in the primaries. Jesse Jackson, his main opponent for the nomination, came closer to the presidency than any other black man before Obama. Al Gore similarly is the only man to have won the US presidency (in 2000) and not actually become president. Another contender was Joe Biden who is in fact Obama’s Vice President today. Biden withdrew after it turned out one of his speeches had been stolen from one by Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).

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Early favourite Gary Hart meanwhile earned eternal notoriety for his spectacular fall from grace in a sex scandal, something that apparently discouraged Arkansas governor Bill Clinton from running until 1992.

Dukakis looked like a strong candidate at first leading the privileged unexciting Bush by around 15% in the summer. His rhetoric was Kennedy-esque. His running mate Lloyd Bentsen also memorably smashed Bush’s disastrous choice of vice president Dan Quayle in the TV debates destroying him with the words “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

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But Dukakis, though in some ways a better man than Bush, was undeniably a weaker candidate, slow to respond to often unfair attacks and lambasted for his controversial opinions on the death penalty (he opposed it) and “liberalism” by this point an insult in the US political lexicon.

Bush seemed to offer a continuation of the Reagan boom years and a continuation of the tax cuts better off Americans had enjoyed. “Read my lips. No new taxes” Bush intoned, probably the most famous thing he ever said. He was foolish to promise it. Thanks to Reagan, the deficit was already woefully out of control. Bush would soon introduce the second biggest tax increase in US history. And by then there would be a recession.

How closely did I follow all this as an eleven year old in Peterborough in 1988? Not THAT closely. I had other distractions: a school trip to Pwllheli in Wales, youth club, the difficult transition from junior to secondary school, reading Douglas Adams books, riding my BMX, a family holiday to the Netherlands, reading, writing and drawing comics, watching Neighbours, seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit at the cinema, experiencing the first stirrings of adolescence.

But my interest in US politics had begun. Both Dukakis and Bush are retired now and in advanced old age. If you want to see them now, they appear on TV briefly in the opening minutes of the 2001 film Donnie Darko.

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Carter Vs Bush

George H. W. Bush;William J. Clinton;James E. Jr. Carter

Two presidents. One Democrat, one Republican. Both turn ninety this year. Neither man ever directly ran against the other. But how do Jimmy “Peanut farmer” Carter or George “Read my lips” Bush square up in a direct face off?

THE FACTS

Carter: The younger of the two, James Earle (“Jimmy”) Carter was the 39th president between 1977 and 1981. He has been a former president for thirty three years, longer than any one else in US history.

Bush:  George Herbert Walker Bush was the 41st president from 1989 until 1993. Only the second man to be both president and father to a US president (the other was John Adams) he was always referred to as simply “George Bush” before 2000 but is now usually referred to as George HW Bush to distinguish him from his son George W Bush (43, 2001-2009).

BACKGROUND

Carter: Famously a Georgia peanut farmer, Carter also has a first class degree in nuclear physics and served in the navy in World War II.

Bush: Scion of a super rich Texas oil family, Bush was the youngest ever US pilot in World War II. His father was a Republican senator.

RISE TO POWER

Carter: Carter served as a Senator and as Governor of Georgia.

Bush: Bush took a different route becoming a congressman and twice standing unsuccessfully for the Senate in the Sixties, only really coming to the fore as Ambassador to the UN and head of the CIA under Nixon and Ford. He was sacked by the new president, Carter in 1976 but sought the presidency himself in 1980. He was beaten for the nomination by Ronald Reagan who picked him as his running mate. Bush served two terms as Vice President between 1981 and 1989.

PRIMARY COLOURS

Carter: Carter triumphed over California Governor Jerry Brown and his eventual running mate Walter Mondale.

Bush: As Veep, Bush was always the favourite for the 1988 Republican nomination beating eccentric evangelist Pat Robertson (Rupert Murdoch’s preferred candidate) and Senator Bob Dole who came to be seen as a sore loser after he angrily called on Bush to “quit lying about my record”.

ELECTION

Carter: In 1976, Jimmy Carter narrowly beat President Gerald Ford. Weakened by Watergate, recession, the Nixon pardon and a gaffe in which he denied Eastern Europe was dominated by the USSR in the TV debate, Ford was only the third president to be beaten in a November election in the 20th century (after President William Taft lost to challenger Woodrow Wilson  in 1912 and incumbent Herbert Hoover who lost to FDR in 1932).

Bush: Initially perceived as a “wimp” from a privileged background, Bush trailed his opponent Governor Michael Dukakis during the summer of 1988. Fighting a dirty campaign and lambasting Dukakis as a “tax and spend liberal,” Bush reversed the situation, helped by Dukakis’s refusal to respond to Bush’s attacks, Dukakis’s unpopular opposition to the death penalty, Bush’s “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge and Dukakis’s short physical stature. Bush ultimately won a forty state landslide and ultimately beat “Duke” by around an 8% margin in the share of the vote.

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VICE PRESIDENT

Carter: Walter Mondale served as Carter’s Vice President. He performed less well as Reagan’s presidential opponent in 1984 winning only one out of the fifty states contested (Minnesota).

Bush: Bush’s choice Dan Quayle was a gaffe-prone disaster who quickly became a national joke. Quayle was exposed as a Vietnam draft dodger (using his family connections to secure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard), misspelled the word “potatoes” in public, botched a tribute to the Holocaust (claiming it was a sad chapter “in our nation’s history”) and attacked TV sitcom Murphy Brown after the main character had a child out of wedlock. Nevertheless, Bush retained him as running mate even in 1992.

FINEST HOUR

Carter: Although he was never hugely popular, carter achieved a major breakthrough in the quest for Middle East peace with the signing of the Camp David Agreement in 1978. The SALT 2 Treaty was also a huge success in Détente though it was never ratified by the US Senate.

Bush: Bush achieved successes in the Middle East too but his biggest success was the 1991 “Desert Storm” victory over Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Bush became the most popular president in thirty years. Some on the Right later regretted not extending the war into Iraq itself as Bush’s son would later do with disastrous consequences.

DECLINE AND FALL

Carter: Never popular, Carter failed to get to grips with the economy, eventually attempted a disastrous move to the Right and a Reagan-like defence build up after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His presidency was ultimately poisoned by the Iranian hostage crisis after 1979. The hostages were released on the day Carter left office in January 1981.

Bush: Bush witnessed a spectacular collapse in popularity between 1991 and 1992, due to the recession, his apparent preoccupation with foreign affairs and his introduction of the second biggest tax increase in US history after his “no new taxes” pledge in 1988. In reality, with Reagan having left him a spiralling national debt, Bush was foolish to have ever made the pledge in the first place.

PRIMARY CHALLENGE

Carter: In 1980, the president faced a serious internal challenge from senior Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy (brother of the assassinated Jack and Bobby). Memories of Kennedy’s role in the 1969 Chappaquiddick Incident wrecked his chances though.

Bush: in 1992, Bush was distracted by a major primary challenge from ex-Nixon speechwriter Senator Pat Buchanan, a pugnacious right winger.

RIVALS

Carter: Carter was beaten soundly by Republican Ronald Reagan in November 1980. In the run-up to the election, the contest appeared much closer than it ultimately proved.

Bush: Bush faced an independent challenge from Texan billionaire H. Ross Perot, but it was ultimately Democrat Governor Bill Clinton who beat Bush, overcoming rumours of infidelity and draft dodging to become one of the most accomplished campaigners in US history.

AFTERWARD

Carter: Although not a hugely successful president, Carter has been a hugely successful ex-president winning the Nobel Peace Prize, writing an acclaimed novel and appearing in Ben Affleck’s film Argo.

Bush: Bush‘s legacy has perhaps been tarnished by the poor record of his son as president.

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