WIUM Tristates Public Radio

A Historian's View of President George H.W. Bush

Dec 6, 2018

Former U.S. President George W. Bush passed away on November 30, 2018. He was 94. It's been nearly 26 years since Bush left office, which has given historians time to reflect on his presidency.

Richard Filipink, a professor in the Department of History at Western Illinois University, said historians have different opinions of Bush’s single term in the White House:

  • Some look at Bush’s presidency as simply an extension of the Reagan presidency.  “Which I think is somewhat unfair. Bush handled things that Reagan probably was not equipped to handle,” said Filipink.
  • Some historians split the Bush years into two different presidencies – one that was largely successful in foreign policy and one that was largely unsuccessful in domestic affairs, including the economy.
  • Others feel some of the things Bush did led directly to the political divide in the nation today.  “His willingness to compromise and his willingness to raise taxes leads directly to the rise of the Gingrich conservatives taking over the (U.S.) House and beginning to dominate the Republican Party,” said Filipink. “The idea that it’s better to be partisan and ideologically pure than to govern is an unintended consequence of Bush’s actions.”

Bush ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1980 but lost to Ronald Reagan.  He was then tapped to serve as Reagan’s running mate even though Bush labeled Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo economics.” 

Richard Filipink
Credit TSPR

Bush got another chance to run for president as Reagan completed his second term in 1988.  This time around Bush earned the Republican nomination and won the general election.

Filipink said Bush was knowledgeable and experienced in foreign policy, and he focused on those strengths while campaigning against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, who had been governor of Massachusetts.

“Bush is sort of unique in that he was able to parlay the vice presidency into a successful run,” said Filipink.  He said most of the U.S. vice presidents who have ascended to the presidency did so because the president they served under died in office.

During his presidency, Bush was especially popular during and right after the Persian Gulf War, which took place from August, 1990 to February, 1991.

The nation's flags are at half staff in remembrance of President George H.W. Bush
Credit Rich Egger

“He had one of the highest approval ratings in American history.  He was the first president to break a 90 in the Gallup Poll approval ratings,” said Filipink.

But Filipink said conservatives never liked or trusted Bush, and the president angered them when he raised taxes to reduce the deficit built up during the Reagan years. He said that left Bush vulnerable to Democrats who criticized the president’s handling of the economy.

Democrat Bill Clinton emerged victorious in the 1992 presidential election, winning both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Bush finished second and independent candidate Ross Perot came in third.

Bush visited western Illinois several years after he left the White House.  He gave the commencement address at Monmouth College in May of 2000, just a few months before his son George W. Bush was elected president.