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Why George H. W. Bush Is America’s Greatest One-Term President


As we reflect upon the life and presidency of George H. W. Bush, it is only natural to wonder where he falls in the pantheon of our 45 presidents. These kinds of rankings are subjective and capricious, but nonetheless enjoyable and perhaps useful in helping us think about what we want from a president.

As we lookback over Bush’s four years in office, the decades have shined up the diamond. At his funeral yesterday, the speakers spoke of his myriad successes and accomplishments. After this most recent examination of his term, there appears to be a strong argument that H. W. Bush was the most successful one-term president in American history.

Twenty-two of our 45 presidents have served only one term. For my purposes I am only considering those who were not assassinated and who lost reelection after serving their first term. No Harry Truman, no John F. Kennedy, and no Lyndon Baines Johnson. That still leaves a few contenders.

The Contenders

Truly great men have been one-term presidents. John Adams, without whom we might still have kings and queens on our money, was a one-term president. But his was a presidency mired in political strife and controversy and, frankly, some illiberal tactics that make Trump calling the press the enemy of the people look like one of those CNN apple and banana ads. A great man is not always a great president.

When I posited last night on Twitter that a strong argument could be made for Bush being the greatest one-term president I discovered an unfound corner of the Internet. Apparently, James Polk Twitter is a real thing, and these folks aren’t kidding. Almost every response I received was from a conservative claiming Polk is the greatest one-term president. I barely remembered that he’d been a president.

Yes, Polk presided over the vast expansion of the United States from sea to shining sea. We may owe America the beautiful in some way to Polk, but surely we also owe him in no small part the Civil War. Polk created a tinderbox without thinking to provide water buckets. Ten years after H. W. Bush’s presidency, the United States was the global hegemonic superpower. Ten years after Polk’s, it was mired in a bloody battle it was lucky to survive.

Another contender is William Howard Taft. He did, after all, fill six — count them, six — Supreme Court vacancies. He continued Teddy Roosevelt’s anti-corporate crusades. He had a fairly successful presidency that probably should have earned him a second term. But not unlike Bush, he faced a third-party candidacy, from that same Teddy Roosevelt and his new Progressive Party. Eighty years later, Ross Perot and the Reform Party would derail Bush in much the same way.

The Case For Bush

Few presidents have ever been inaugurated into a world as dangerously in flux as Bush was. Certainly Abraham Lincoln. But the closer analogy is Truman. Truman took power as the United States was successfully completing World War II. In accomplishing that, he became the only man to ever launch a nuclear strike. Afterwards he had to help create a new Europe, one divided, in which a wall bifurcated Germany.

H.W. Bush was president when that wall fell. Today we look back and think, Hey, we won the Cold War, great job, everybody. But we forget that suddenly thousands of nuclear weapons were under the control of a post-Soviet government about as well-organized as a Marx Brothers routine. Meanwhile, who knows what the future of Germany was to be? Was that really a gang we wanted to get back together? He healed the world with his kind and gentle soul. And we take that for granted far too much.

H. W. Bush, the former head of the CIA and former ambassador to the United Nations, was the right man at the right time. As former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney made clear in his eulogy yesterday, Bush was absolutely essential in creating a new world order. Whatever you think of that, it has not plunged the world back into global war.

In domestic policy, Bush ushered through the Americans with Disabilities Act, creating improved access to services and facilities for millions of Americans. This legislation sent the message that America is for everyone, that doors will not be closed. It was a piece of legislation that is still improving the lives of many Americans and making us a better country.

Why He Lost

If he was so good, why did he lose? Two and a half words: H. Ross Perot. Whether Perot cost Bush the 1992 election is a political science question for the ages. Well, I’m here to tell you, Perot cost Bush the election. Perot is without question the most overlooked and ignored political figure of the late 20th century. He and his Reform Party tapped into a constituency that never went away.

Both parties ignored this faction, who were skeptical of globalism, immigration, and foreign adventures. Neoliberalism was the tonic that crafted the hairdos of both parties. But the Reformists lingered. They were enough to knock Bush out of office in ’92, but they weren’t enough to win until Donald Trump grafted the Reform agenda onto the GOP and defeated his son.

Whether the Reform Party coup over the Republican Party is a good thing is an argument for another day. Maybe Bush and his sons are the last Republicans of their ilk. I doubt it. Time will tell.

One thing seems clear: No one-term president had as smooth, successful, and meaningful a presidency as did George Herbert Walker Bush. It may be a dubious honor, but maybe not. Bush did what he thought was right, even when it meant going back on his sacred word about taxes. He did what he thought was right, and usually it was. For Bush, one term should be enough to list him among the great presidents. We would be lucky to see his like again.