Bush’s defeat: insider’s analysis

Having rebuffed a fine man whose Presidency failed, about half the country, I suspect, will have the rueful blues this weekend. George Bush was our last President from the great generation that held last through a bitter depression and fought gallantly in war for a country they never doubted for a second deserved their love. Their stewardship, begun when John F., Kennedy brought the junior officers of World War II to power (Theodore White’s phrase), somehow deserves better than this sodden end.

The old order passeth, a new generation riseth.

All day I’ve been thinking of a dream my brother-in-law Joe had a few years ago. His late father came to him to tell him the birth of his first child, expected in a mailer 01 weeks, was imminent. The old man stood in his work clothes in a driveway in New Jersey, squinting in the sun. Joe put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Thanks, Pop,” he said, “You done good.” When he awoke, he took his wife to the hospital, where later that day their son was born.

Joe’s words—“Thanks, Pop”—seem appropriate as a tough old generation that protected, for us, a world, softly retreats.

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President BushIn a way, the election was always a choice between depression and anxiety. When voters imagined picking up the paper Wednesday morning and seeing a headline that said “Bush Wins In Close Race,” their hearts sank. When they imagined “President Clinton!” their hearts raced. Forced to choose between melancholy and nervousness they took the latter; it seemed the more awake, and so the more hopeful choice. But such, thoughts only characterize the election, for me; they don’t explain it.

Mr. Bush’s fortunes in ’92 were hurt, like his Presidency, by a misunderstanding of what the voters did four years before. He thought the American people voted for him In 1988. They didn’t. They voted for the continuation of basic Reaganesque policies, which is what George Bush said he stood for.

He vowed in ’88 to keep the size of Government down. He let it grow. He said he would not raise taxes. He raised them. He said he’d resist the heavy weight of Government. He allowed more regulation.

The voters who created the Reagan coalition abandoned Mr. Bush in ’92 because they were never loyal to him; they were loyal to the beliefs he espoused from 1981 through 1989.

Some will say Mr. Bush was done in by a bad convention and a bad campaign. But’ if both had gone better the outcome would have been the same. And I don’t think it all came down to the economy, either. It’s true George Bush didn’t have a good one, true he was late to see it and speak of it. But Ronald Reagan, who had a worse recession in ’82, won by a landslide In ’84.

That was because he had clear beliefs based on what voters ‘saw as common sense principles; when things didn’t work right away, they cut him some slack and gave him some time. President Bush sometimes seemed as if he had few beliefs that were not subject to shifts In wind, ground and circumstance. At the end, voters thought he wasn’t serious.

Serious people in public life stand for things and fight for them; the ensuing struggle is meant to yield progress and Improvement. Mr. Bush seemed embarrassed to believe. It left those who felt sympathy for him embarrassed to support him.

His economic wound was, to a significant extent, self-inflicted. It wasn’t external forces that created the crisis, no mullah half a world away who took our people hostage. The 1990 budget deal did what Mr. Bush said Michael Dukakis would do—impede growth and damage the economy.

The President’s aides were not sufficiently alive to history, which was bad, because history was against them. The modern Republican Party stood triumphant on two pillars. The first was sober and effective anti-Communism, the second was a principled small-Government policy. History took the first from Mr. Bush; he took the second from himself. Without the pillars, he fell.

The President’s great moment, the war against Iraq, and it was a great moment, with masterly diplomacy—made his problems fatal by obscuring them. Desert Storm gave the White House a false sense of security and encouraged carelessness. The staff was too dazed by the polls to see.

As President, Mr. Bush reverted to his behavior as Vice President: he stopped seeing the connection between words and action. He did not communicate. I used to wonder if, traumatized by what he saw as the Reagan White House’s too great attention to the public part of the Presidency, to the Rose Garden backdrops and the commemorative events, Mr. Bush concluded the public part was all show and not worthy of a sincere and honest man.

But the public part of the Presidency, the persuading-in-the-pulpit part, is central to leadership. The worst thing is to lie to the people, but the second worst is to ignore them and not tell what you are doing and why.

In domestic affairs, the President leaned on yesterday’s men. The aides and Cabinet members who represented the new conservatism and the future of the party—Jack Kemp, William Bennett, Vin Weber—were given access and then ignored. The President listened to those—Richard Darman, Nicholas Brady—who represented the “realistic” and “sophisticated” thinking of Republicans who came of age during Watergate. They thought they were on the losing side of history; they thought their job was not to win but to limit inevitable loss. The President’s choke here revived the old party divisions Mr. Reagan had healed and further sundered the Republican coalition.

After 12 years in power, the most talented Republicans were the most exhausted. They had lost touch with the grass roots when they used to be the grass roots. Years ago, Henry Kissinger said that Government is all intellectual outgo, that you never have time for Inflow, for reading and thinking. (The conservatives around Mr. Bush who make good use of their time off and woo become reacquainted with their country will come back strong in ’96 or 2000.)

Bill Clinton ran a creative campaign. Buses, Elvis, answering each attack with more and bigger verbal warheads. A lot of, people find it hard not to daydream during his speeches—for me it’s like watching a soap opera; I can never quite follow the: narrative—but he made no major rhetorical mistakes. His people were smart and hungry, and they had the press. The media were partial to Bill Clinton not only because they lean toward liberalism and many are baby boomers but because they want a new story, a new headline, new news. They love their country; they want change; they’re sick unto death of Republicans. (Note to the Clinton staff: your new friends have built you up for a steep fall.)

Finally, on the Republican side, the myth of the great’ campaign tacticians was revealed. A lot of them were jockeys. who won because the horse they rode was fast. Ronald Reagan, carried them across the line, they didn’t carry him. When they rode George Bush, they failed, because he couldn’t win for them:

Those are the reasons for George Bush’s defeat, as I see it.

Back in ‘88, the Democrats around Michael Dukakis sized up Mr. Bush and history and said, “If we can’t win this one we might as well find another country.” That was not true then but was true this time. The good news for Republicans is if you know what went wrong you can correct it. More good news: every defeat carries within it the seeds of victory, and every victory carries within it the seeds of defeat.

Someone said that to me once—I think Lee Atwater. He may be another reason the theme of this article is not victory.

What’s Wrong With the Right?

One day in 1980, New York’s history-minded Democratic Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, sat in his wood-paneled study reading the Op-Ed page of a major newspaper. Suddenly he smacked the floor with his cane like Lionel Barrymore, shook his head and growled, “Of a sudden, the Republican Party is the party of ideas.”

At least that’s how I imagine it. Anyway, it was 1980, he did say the Republican Party had become the party of ideas. and he was right. He was also surprised, understandably. A party that had spent decades hanging on through low budget liberalism was finally changing. prompted by forces its establishment had not ignited and could not control.

From the West came the broad, grass-roots antitax movement signaled by passage of California’s Proposition 13. From the East came new writers with new assumptions, who argued for change in the journals of New York and Washington. The two forces converged to produce something fresh: a modern conservatism that could govern.

At the center was Ronald Reagan, who kept in one piece a naturally divided movement—social conservatives who would ban abortion, libertarians who would legalize cocaine—first by giving its members a winner when they hadn’t expected to have a winner in their lifetimes. Mr. Reagan’s interests were widely and openly conservative. He had come to his beliefs at a time when the right’s tenets were clear: budgets should be balanced; put a Federal agency in charge or the Sahara and it would run out of sand. But he was receptive to new thinking and generous toward all strains of conservatism because in a way he believed In them all. His respect for other conservatives spread as if by contagion. For a decade the people he brought to Washington functioned pretty well as one big fractious family.

And then … the crash. Not of the economy but Dr Communism, which brought down more than the Berlin wall. For if Mr. Reagan held modem conservatism together, two pillars kept it aloft. The first was unambiguous and effective opposition to the evil of Communism. The second was a promise that Republicans would make government smaller, less expensive, less intrusive. The first pillar fell last summer, on roughly the day The New York Times ran the headline “Gorbachev Quits as Party Head; Ends Communism’s 744Year Reign.” The second pillar began to wobble when the Bush Administration, in 1990, rescinded “Read my lips.”

The end of imperial Communism made the movement start to float apart; the end of “Read my lips” made it mean. And thus the current impasse, in which conservatives hut”1 thunderbolts at one another. William F. Buckley Jr., an architect of the movement and one of its authentic heroes, is castigated as a narrow-minded excluder; he, in turn, eases into a pair of tuxedo slippers to tap out editorials damaging the Presidential campaign or the most rightward of the serious candidates in the 1992 race. Pat Buchanan.

It is not an easy time to be a conservative.

A decade ago, while Pat Moynihan was turning into Lionel Barrymore, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., a columnist and the editor of the conservative journal The American Spectator, was writing a book called “The Liberal Crack-Up,” which traced with originality and verve the decline of liberal thinking through liberal behavior. Now he has written a book abut the right. “The Conservative Crack-Up” is part memoir, part essay, and it has some useful; things to say about Conservatives and their current predicament.

“The politics of the left and right are bereft,” Mr. Tyrrell says. “The liberals have not had new ideas since the last ice age . . . Conservatives have coherent ideas, but they have very few gifted pols. The conservatives relish for politics is only sporadic and almost wholly dependent on their perception that some zany reformer has become a threat to their home sweet home.”

Mr. Tyrrell notes that one of the reasons conservatives didn’t make some of the gains that they could have was that by the time they won power in 1980 many of their leaders, from their new President to the editor of their most important journal (Mr. Buckley of National Review) to the godfather of the freshest troops (Irving Krystal of the neoconservatives) were near or at retirement age. For them the victory of 1980 was less a hungry beginning than a satisfying end.

But this book is best when Mr. Tyrrell speaks of the distance, the utter disconnection, between the nation’s establishment—the press, academia, the arts—and its people. He accurately observes that “conservatives have become accustomed to being underdogs in the cultural wars,” that in the 1970’s the conservative movement was the least celebrated of movements, receiving “nothing comparable to the publicity attending the antiwar movement, the youth movement or the gruesome feminist movement. And yet only the conservative movement was to attract enough support from the country to capture the White House.”

The elites did more than ignore a movement. The “smokestack industries of American culture”—universities, policy institutes and the news media—have polluted the intellectual environment with their “incessant politicizing.” The result, in Mr. Tyrrell’s view, is a national blandness, a new conformity: “America’s Kultursmog has eliminated most forms of intellectual individualism with alarming thoroughness. There was a time when American culture was teeming with diversity and even with heresy. But over the last few decades the atmosphere of American culture has grown stale as the arts, ethics and every product of intellect has been tainted with the political vaporings of the New Age.”

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Mr. Tyrrell is amusing and pointed when he rails about what is wrong with the left. When he writes about the right, however, things get uncomfortable. Much of the history he tells is old and has been told, often better, elsewhere. Some of Mr. Tyrrell’s complains seem tired. When he laments his and other conservatives’ exclusion from the tables of the news media titans, one simple wonders why he resents the absence of a dying establishment. Young writers in their 20’s and 30’s, hazed, shaved and barked at in the politically correct boot camps of the Ivy League, continue to rise, rebel and turn right. And they are the future.

There is less Menckenish irreverence in this book than mere rudeness towards safe targets. The score-settling ratio is high. Mr. Tyrrell calls Gary Mills a backstabber and Hilton Kramer bilious; he suggests that George Will is an explosive figure motivated by malice. Often the book seems less an examination of a crack-up than an example of it.

Sometimes it is hard to read, hampered by an odd tone, a kind of dispirited puckishness. And sometimes it’s just heavy going. Some conservative writers like Mr. Tyrrell affect a kind of big word style (predisposed to rodomontades, Mr. Tyrrell tends to compose feuilietons about the day’s perturbations). In part I think because they all grew up in a time when liberals had intellectual hegemony, one of the first things you had to prove as a conservative was that you weren’t stupid. But I’m not sure conservatives have to prove that any more.

Ultimately, this book is frustrating because it does not maintain a level of seriousness about what is behind the name-calling on the right—an inability so far to reach agreement on what conservatives should stand for and fight for in the new world. Should the right try, heroically, to return to the fight for smaller, less expensive government, or should it aim at increasing revenues that would allow us to get the books aright and fund what Pat Buchanan has called Jack Kemp’s big rock candy mountain? Mr. Tyreell does not address this and other questions with depth.

There are, in 1992, many kinds of conservatives. Concorde conservatives crisscrossing the Atlantic to check on this election and that caucus, cultural conservatives, bristling supply-siders, spiky libertarians and others, all rent by 12 years of intramural fighting, conflicting ambitions and snubs. A dozen years of leadership will leave you tired; a dozen years away from the grass roots, when you used to be the grass roots, might leave you disoriented. It would be amazing if they weren’t fighting, and weren’t mean.

One wishes Mr. Tyrrell’s magazine and other journals of the right would be not an army but a battlefield, not a combatant but a site on which combat occurs, each of the many sides contending, gaining and losing terrain, until the best side wins. We might all sit down, breathe deep, take heart and busy ourselves with pillar building. As for those fractious, angry Washington conservatives who would rather, this year, hurl thunderbolts, perhaps they need a rest. If they don’t come together soon, they will get it.

Those Moist Amphibian Lips

Once upon a time in the land of children’s books there resided certain conventions: fairy tales would be relatively simple stories, and the lessons they provided would be both practical (cry wolf too often and no one will listen when the real wolf comes) and moral (virtue is, in the end, rewarded). There were some unfortunate stereotypes (the kind tend to be beautiful, women with sharp noses tend to be witches). and some heroes were dolts, which you know if you’ve ever had a 3-year-old look up and ask you, “Why does she think the wolf is her grandma?”

Now, possibly because children are more sophisticated—if that is the word to describe the condition produced when a toddler up late with an earache can pick up the channel switcher and wind up on Channel 35, where an adult male is masturbating to disco music there is something new: the ant-fairy tale, a mordant treatment of the form’s conventions in a manner that might be called not Grimm but somewhat grim.

“The Frog Prince, Continued” by Jon Scieszka begins where “The Frog Prince” left off. He’s already been kissed by the Princess and is now a nice yuppie-looking man in a suit and tie, but, alas, he is not happy. His wife, the Princess, who looks like Sydney Biddle Barrows, is always nagging him to stop sticking out his tongue as if he’s catching flies. He wants to know how come she never wants to go down to the pond anymore; she says she’d probably be in a better mood if he’d stop hopping around on the furniture.

You know what happens next: she finds a lily pad in his pant:> pocket and declares she wishes she’d never kissed his slimy frog lips, and the Frog Prince packs his bag and leaves. Then he goes on a great adventure where he tries to get a witch in the forest to turn him back into a frog so he can be happy again. But the witches he meets are apparently heavily influenced by Stephen Sondheim. The first one threatens to cast a wicked spell on him because she thinks he’s there to wake up Sleeping Beauty before the 100 years are up. (This witch zaps people into spells with a television channel switcher.) The next one, whom he finds at a beauty parlor having her hair done and reading Hague magazine, fears he’s come to rescue Snow White and offers him a poison apple.

The Prince is terrorized by more witches who don’t understand what story they’re in, and at the end, tired and bedraggled and ready to recount his old blessings, he returns home to a by now anxious and rueful Princess, who is eager to kiss his moist amphibian mouth. The moral being, in a harsh and confusing world it’s sometimes best to trust what you have and to fight boredom not by changing your outer world but your inner one.

Steve Johnson’s illustrations are artistically interesting—witty and spooky at the same time. But at bedtime most parents prefer benign and sunny, because children have nightmares and the day-to-day world yields more than enough fodder for an imaginative child’s bad dreams. So I’m not sure spooky is a good thing. But it is good if you wrote and illustrated the book in part to make your grown-up friends laugh. Mr. Scieszka’s first book, “The True Story of The Three Little Pigs,” for example, has been a huge hit with adults. My friends laughed at this book too, but they have three decades on the nursery school set.

To fully appreciate “The Frog Prince, Continued,” you have to have a highly developed sense of Irony and a sharp sense of the absurd, which most children don’t develop before they can read, despite exposure to random television programming. The jacket says “The Frog Prince, Continued” is for ages 5 and up, and it’s definitely up because those under 6 or maybe 7 will inevitably be confused by it. And that’s all right. There’s time ahead for ironic humor. People who sell things for children are always claiming too broad an age group. probably so they’ll have a bigger pool of potential buyers. This is not only unhelpful to the consumer, it’s counterproductive to the seller: hit a 3-year-old with, say, the “Peanuts” characters too soon and they’ll be bored, refuse to listen and turn against Charlie Brown and Lucy forever. Although appearances are sometimes deceiving, little children are not sophisticated and they don’t know it all. So it’s worth waiting a few years before introducing them to Jon Scieszka’s sense of humor. My guess is that the rest of the family will still be laughing at “The Frog Prince, Continued.”