President George H.W. Bush was a mensch.
But in politics, being a mensch makes you a loser.
There, I said it.
It’s a blessing that now that the 41st President of the United States has died, no one has to strain the limits of credulity simply to say a few nice things about the man. President George H.W. Bush was a straight arrow with a personal warmth that made people like him instantly. He was honest. He was loyal. He was even a good family man; something that’s hard to do when living a life in political office.
In fact, he was such a good family man that people who tried to spread ugly lies about him ended up paying the price. For example, a whispered rumor in 1988 about Bush’s alleged infidelity was brought into the public eye by a then-little known aide to the Michael Dukakis campaign named Donna Brazile. The allegation was rightfully deemed so outrageous that Brazile was forced to resign from the campaign in disgrace. The kind of integrity in politics accepted by all sides that George H.W. Bush exemplified is rare indeed.
Too bad that’s not what most Americans remember about him, at least before this week-long series of memorials and tributes.
Before his death, Bush 41 was known critically as the last president to lose a re-election bid, the man who presided over a recession that ended the Reagan boom years, and as an uninspiring speaker. Dedicated friends of Israel will also not forget how his administration demonized Israel for allegedly not being serious about making peace with the Palestinians.
Those who chose to laud him remembered him as the man who led the U.S. to victory in the first Gulf War, kept the world in relative order during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the old Soviet Union and worked hard for charitable causes after he left office.
Now, everyone is also accurately remembering him as a mensch.
And as a mensch, George H.W. Bush was the gentleman who rarely punched back at his political opponents or the news media. Thus, the obvious comparisons to President Trump are also being made, since the current president appears to be the polar opposite.
But while we can probably all agree that Bush Sr. was much more of a “mensch” than President Trump, we must ask the following questions: Is the “Trump way” the better way for a Republican and a conservative to survive? Can a conservative who plays nicely have a chance against a mostly hostile news, entertainment, and social media landscape? Did George H.W. Bush’s failed re-election and the demonizing of President George W. Bush in his second term create the Trump presidency?
To come to an accurate series of answers to those questions, one has to remember where the nation was politically on the eve of the 1992 presidential election. By the late summer of 1991 and the Democratic Party’s candidates were making their final commitments to run, the very idea of challenging Bush seemed preposterous. His approval rating was in the 80 percdnt range, the country was still in a post-Gulf War afterglow, and even “Saturday Night Live” featured a sketch depicting the possible Democratic candidates all trying to convince primary voters not to choose them to get slaughtered by the incumbent in ’92.
Yes, the economy took a turn for the worse in the fall and winter of 1991. But it turned out to be a mild recession nothing like what the nation endured in 2008 or in the 1970s. To believe that Bush lost in 1992 because of a recession or because of a broken promise not to raise taxes is to misunderstand how Americans vote for higher office.
The fact is, the most persuasive candidate wins. And to be persuasive, a presidential candidate needs to show the kind of passion for the job that Bill Clinton showed in 1992, without appearing too eager or entitled as Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
George H.W. Bush showed that kind of passion and fight in early 1988 when he pushed back hard on then-CBS News anchor Dan Rather in a live interview just before the meat of the GOP primary schedule. That moment eased voter fears that Bush didn’t have enough of Ronald Reagan’s moxie to continue his policies and legacy.
By 1992, Bush simply wasn’t enough of a fighter to make a winning case for himself. He looked disinterested, especially when he was caught checking his watch during a debate against Clinton and Ross Perot. Conservatives at the time were infuriated by that just as much as they were by the welching on the “No New Taxes” pledge. They couldn’t comprehend why Bush didn’t call out the media for not understanding economics. They couldn’t fathom why he couldn’t act just a little more populist and use a little more fire in his voice when he spoke to and about out-of-work Americans. They didn’t know it then, but they couldn’t understand why Bush wasn’t more of a fighter like Donald Trump. And so when Trump finally did come around as a serious candidate more than 20 years later, Republican primary voters were more ready for him than ever before.
Trump’s fighting spirit as it is now probably wouldn’t have been as much of a winning ticket in 1992 as it was in 2016. But Bush needed some measure of it then, even if it would have meant he was less of a mensch for it.
And make no mistake, Barack Obama learned this lesson too. For all his supposed cool eloquence, try watching footage of two or three of Obama’s speeches as president and as a presidential candidate sometime. You’ll see plenty of fire in them, especially a propensity to scold or browbeat some group or someone in almost every speech.
To tell the truth, that kind of attack mode is not a good thing in an adult. It’s the reason why I don’t run for office or work for politicians, and advise my children to do the same when they grow up. It’s the reason that no matter how outrageous any given politician has acted, it never shakes me the way a bad act by a non-politician close friend or loved one would. And it’s the reason why the insertion of politics into an ever-growing list of different aspects of American life is eroding our society and threatening our national coherence.
But politicians simply feed off the culture, and the culture is getting nastier all the time. Just check out what’s going on in social media if you’re not sure how nasty it is. And until the culture changes in America, no mensch running for national office really has a chance.
Jake Novak has been a TV news producer and editorial columnist for more than 25 years, with expertise in political, economic, religious, and cultural issues. He has produced shows atCNBC, CNN, FOX, and several local stations across the country. Novak is a graduate of theYeshivah of Flatbush, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, and a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter@jakejakeny and read his columns on 5TJT.com.