The Most Successful One-Term President

By Michael Barone

December 7, 2018 6 min read

George H.W. Bush "gave the nation its most successful one-term presidency." He "was the best one-term president the country has ever had, and one of the most underrated presidents of all time."

So said two not impartial sources — the late president's vice president, Dan Quayle, and his Houston friend and secretary of state, who was with him at the end, James Baker. But their assessments are entirely defensible.

The toughest one-term competitor was President James K. Polk, who achieved all four of his goals — gaining the Oregon Territory and the Pacific Coast, establishing an independent treasury and lowering tariffs. But Polk's acquisitions left the country with a problem — slavery in the territories — that it wasn't able to solve without civil war. And they left his successors a nation and world headed toward broad sunlit uplands.

Polk was the original "Dark Horse" presidential candidate, and when Bush started running for president in the 1980 cycle, he was, too — a successful oilman who had lost two Senate races and in between served two terms in the House.

His brief campaign autobiography minimized, perhaps with his characteristic modesty, the value of his experience in appointive office: As ambassador to the United Nations, he was not clued in on then-President Nixon's opening to China; he was unaware of the Cultural Revolution while serving 13 months in Beijing; he was CIA director for just 11 months. But his network of friends and cousins — all those notes dashed off on stationery! — propelled him to victories in the Iowa caucuses and northeastern primaries and second place on Ronald Reagan's ticket.

Bush probably learned more about issues, and certainly about world leaders, as vice president than ever before, as he said at Reagan's funeral. The result was his masterful navigation of choppy currents and sudden storms as president: uniting Germany but not humiliating Gorbachev after the Berlin Wall fell; assembling an international coalition and winning the Gulf War.

This despite his pushing against disassembling existing structures — the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. They unraveled anyway, but mostly peacefully. It's useful to have a steady balance wheel in a time of revolutionary upheaval.

On domestic policy he was more of an innovator than people think. The young man who signed up to be a Navy pilot and the young husband who left leafy Greenwich for the desert wastes of West Texas oilfields pushed successfully for policies others hadn't considered.

Such as the Americans With Disabilities Act. This wasn't a handout, but like the GI Bill, which paid his tuition at Yale, it opened opportunities for people to help themselves.

The 1990 Clean Air Act was perhaps the last authentically bipartisan environment initiative. The Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act mopping up the savings-and-loan mess was costly, producing one-third of the budget deficit, but also necessary and self-liquidating.

Liberal journalists who have been praising Bush this week ridiculed him as a clueless preppie whose success was handed down to him — absurd given the risks he took in the Pacific and Texas. They're still attacking him as a racist for the 1988 campaign ads that accurately attacked his opponent for defending for nine years the policy of granting weekend furloughs to prisoners sentenced to life without parole — a policy for which there is no rational argument.

So why was this mostly successful president defeated resoundingly for a second term? One reason is that he broke his "read my lips" promise and agreed with Democrats to raise taxes. The tax increase fueled enthusiasm for Pat Buchanan's insurgent primary campaign. And the NAFTA trade deal with Mexico — another original Bush initiative — helped Ross Perot make a different conservative case against him.

But one other factor, I suspected then and believe now, was decisive: Bush was ready to retire. He had accomplished most of his goals, including some that had seemed impossible. He had enlisted in the Navy exactly 50 years before and spent more than 20 of the intervening years in public service.

He had been elected president at age 64, older — with one exception — than all but three other past presidents when first elected (William Harrison, James Buchanan and Zachary Taylor) and two when re-elected (Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower). The exception was conspicuous: Ronald Reagan, who had just carried 44 and 49 states at ages 69 and 73.

In politics, success can be as fatal as failure. Achieve some original bipartisan goals and neither party may want you anymore. Demonstrate mastery of foreign policy and voters may conclude they don't need it anymore. Gracefully retire and Americans may gratefully, if belatedly, give thanks, as they have this past week.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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