Why were Bush Sr. and Jr. such different presidents?

Suggested by this post of What Exit’s in an IMHO thread.

Like Jim, I thought well of and twice voted for President George H. W. Bush, while believing his son to be so horrid a chief executive that it only his picking a nuclear war with Russia could lower my opinion of him. I can’t believe I’m the only person on the board who has disparite opinions of the two of them. Which leads me to the board question: why was H.W. generally competent, and his scion so… well, what he is?

Anyone? Bueller?

Well, I guess a more relevant question would be why you’d expect them to be similar. Fathers and sons aren’t always the same. I’ve very different in many respects from my Dad.

Leaving aside any points about intelligence or personality, consider the different in experience. Bush Sr. was significatly older (65 when he took office, to Bush 2.0’s 54) and had served as Vice President for eight years to Ronald Reagan. So, imagine if, instead of becoming President in 2000, Bush 2.0 had instead become Vice President to John McCain, and had served as his VP until the end of this term, and was running for President now. He’d be a very different person, with a much broader understanding of national politics and international affairs than he had in 2000. He would be much more like his father if he were to take office in 2009; closer in age, and with eight years as VP. In a lot of ways the difference is simply that Bush 2.0 did not take an apprenticeship, like Bush 1.0 did.

I think this alone explains much of the difference.

While Bush Sr. had a powerful father, he in no way was “given” the office as the son of a president. But, more importantly, he was one of the best prepared presidents ever. Besides being VP (and he was the other leading candidate in 1980, and wasn’t plucked from an igloo somewhere) he was Ambassador to China and I think to the UN. He had a wide array of acquaintances in the international scene, and seems much smarter and more inquisitive than Baby Bush. He’s also more of a leader. During GW I, he took advice, but he was the one in charge. Being smarter, he wasn’t an ideologue. He correctly called supply side economics Voodoo Economics, after all.

If this were the case, wouldn’t he be a different person today, after eight years as president, with a much broader understanding of national politics and international affairs? I don’t see much evidence that his outlook or abilities have improved since 2000, even with all of the experience he got being president.

I think that Bush Sr. is a) smarter and b) a better person than his son. Although he came from a wealthy family, he didn’t grow up with the same sense of entitlement to political power that his sons seem to have.

You left out that Bush senior was Director of Central Intelligence.

Excellent points RickJay, I would add I also think a big part was the Bush Sr made his own policy and had a decent team of advisors that he listened to. Bush II had Dick Cheney and a team of very questionable advisors as his inner circle.

Bush Sr. had Cheney as one voice and not the main one, Bush II had Cheney as the main voice and people like Rove and Ashcroft as major voices.

Bush I was an experienced combat vet, Bush II has a very questionable military reserve record.

One was in charge of our primary intelligence agency, one has questionable intelligence*.

I think **RickJay **did a great job explaining the rest.

ETA: Another point, Bush I grew up believing and acting that Religion was personal and not part of politics. Somehow his son does not get this.


  • Sorry, I know that was a cheap shot, I could not resist.

The differing religious viewpoints of the two men lead them to a very different world view, I think.

Answering my own question, I think that because he actually did stuff in the Big One, along with the rest of his impressive resume, GHWB had a much more realistic notions of the limitations of US power than his son. Whether or not you believe that he and his time manipulated Iraq into invading Kuwait for Byzantine purposes, the fact remains that after giving Saddam Hussein his first beatdown, GHWB declined to push on to Baghdad because he knew it would be a hairball. He got a lot of grief for his use fo the word “prudent” way back then, but I always thought that was unfair. Prudence is highly underrated.

Bush Sr had also been Chairman of the Republican Party back in the seventies.

Bush Sr had a wide variety of experience and had met a huge number of important people face-to-face before becoming President. In addition he had experience working in situations where he was not in charge - he learned how to work with people rather than simply give orders to subordinates. He understood that sometimes in life you run into limits on what can be done.

James Baker (Bush’s Secretary of State and right-hand man) once said something to the effect that he had to spend twelve years listening to people second-guess the decision not to invade Iraq in 1991 but he says he doesn’t hear it anymore.

Put simply, they’re just a completely different calibre of person. GHWB showed leadership from an early age, and earned his way to Yale on merit. He was also an accomplished businessman, who increased the family fortune through oil. He had real combat experience in WWII, which tempers most people’s foolish sensibilities about the utility of force, and he understood statesmanship and geopolitical realities.

The most important difference, in my mind, is that he knew that American leadership in the world was always best fulfilled by seeking to bolster and continue the legacy of the Atlantic Charter, advancing American national interests in international fora, and getting others to internalise American values. You remember - back when being multilateral minded was a bipartisan endeavour!

Bush never had anything like that kind of sophistication. He was not and isn’t a simpleton, like some pretend, but clearly he had little understanding of foreign policy coming into office. His tenure clearly shows how he was taken in by a neo-conservatives coterie who fed him a romantic bedtime story, which fit well with the brash and immature tone of Republican politics of time, and it clearly fed into his emotional need to reconcile his father’s loss of the election as a failure of will in the Gulf War.

As for how they governed, it’s also tied up with the fact that GHWB drew upon people with decent, credible views about diplomacy and statecraft, like Baker and Scowcroft. Bush too had some decent people, but they were marginalised for the most important decisions of his administration. He simply didn’t show the leadership to enable them to play an effective role in pushing back against the pugnacious crew Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bolton et al, who were waging an internal war against the State Department and Powell.

Not much to add, but three issues that I suspect (besides those mentioned) are that:

  1. Bush 2 felt like he had to outdo his dad. Where Bush 1 ended up raising taxes after all, and where Bush 1 pulled out of Iraq with Hussein still in power, Bush 2 was going to keep to it regardless of anything.

  2. Bush 2 is rather passive aggressive. He’s not fond of face-to-face encounters, debates, or arguments. If someone bullies him with their opinion, he’ll cave. But then he’ll get angry at the person and so whenever they’re not about do things that will mess them up.

  3. Bush 2 is much more religious, and much less skeptical. He has no innate desire to inquire further into things. While as Bush 1 was, as mentioned, the head of the CIA. For him, investigation and analysis it was something that was an integral part of his job for years.

As I brought up the CIA thing, I feel obliged to point out that he had the job for less than a year: 355 days, according to the link I posted earlier. Not that I disagree with your basic point there, though. And I too thought he had it all through the Ford presidency.

In the latest issue of Newsweek, David Ansen suggests something that I, being neither a psychologist or a theolgian, don’t feel capable of judging.

I agree with you, Skald. was in the Gulf War and when the option to invade Baghdad was declined I was, well, bewildered. From my point of view at the time (and i was a lot younger and a impulsive) we had spent months in the desert and now that its the enddgame we were quitting? Well, I was wrong then, and I know it. Invading would have been a nightmare. It is a nightmare now, as we all know.

Bush I was right. Its a shame for the rest of us that his son doesn’tr have the foresight and reluctance to throw lives away for a fools errand. After all I thought the entire thing was to get the WMDs. Calling it Iraqi Freedom or whatever is a crock, a smokescreen. Spin control. It sickens me.

I’m a registered Democrat who voted for GHWB once. My only regret about doing so is that it made it possible for GWB to become president twice. Talk about unintended consequences.

As others have said, a combination of experience, prudence, and intelligence.

Now, intelligence is a tricky word. I don’t know or care what W’s IQ is or how fast he can work a sudoku. But when dealing with complex issues he seems to lack the facility and/or willingness to incorporate input from a variety of sources, weigh it, analyze it, and synthesize it in order to come up with a rational response. He seems to have a need for others to filter and restrict information for him and present black-and-white scenarios.

Disclaimer: I am not part of W’s inner circle and this appraisal is based largely on third-party reports, supported by the general fucked-uppedness of things right now.

Besides being stupid, religious and incurious, Bush II has always been insulated from the costs of his mistakes, and surrounds himself with yes-men. He gets little feedback; he seldom hears criticism, doesn’t watch the news, and doesn’t pay the penalty for screwing up. So, whatever native ability to learn from his mistakes that he may have had was further blunted. He was never born to be smart, but I suspect he would have done better in a middle class family.

Is that true? GHWB was the son of Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, after all, so I’m thinking that Yale wasn’t exactly rigorous in examining his application, but I certainly could be wrong.

I still don’t buy that. GHWB left Iraq hanging fire for his successors. IMHO it was a foolish mistake to negotiate an end to the Persian Gulf that including leaving Saddam in power. “We didn’t have the UN support to remove him” has always struck me as bunk.

I don’t buy that. We could have gone on forever enforcing the no-fly zones and keeping up the sanctions. When I was younger, I was also mad at GHW I for not taking out Hussein. But we see now why that was a good thing. Hell, Cheney even mentioned it in his book…