For a brief, glorious, almost Olympian moment it appeared that the presidency itself could serve as the campaign. Rarely had an American president seemed so sure of reelection. In the summer and fall of 1991, George Bush appeared to be politically invincible. His personal approval ratings in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War had reached 90 percent, unheard of for any sitting president, and even more remarkable for someone like Bush, a competent political insider whose charisma and capacity to inspire had in the past escaped most of his fellow citizens. Of his essential decency and competence there had been little doubt, and the skill with which he had presided over the end of the Cold War had impressed not merely the inner club that monitored foreign policy decision-making, but much of the country as well. With exceptional sensitivity, he had juggled and balanced his own political needs with the greater political needs of his newest partner in this joint endeavor, Mikhail Gorbachev. For Bush was quite aware that Gorbachev's political equation was much more fragile than his own, and he had been careful to be the more generous member of this unlikely two-man team that was negotiating the end of almost forty-five years of terrifying bipolar tensions.
One moment had seemed to symbolize the supreme confidence of the Bush people during this remarkable chain of events. It came in mid-August of 1991, when some Russian right-wingers mounted a coup against Gorbachev and Bush held firm, trying at first to support Gorbachev and, unable to reach him, then using his influence to help the embattled Boris Yeltsin. The coup had failed. A few days later, Gorbachev, restored to power in part because of the leverage of Washington, had resigned from the Communist Party. To the Bush people that attempted coup had been a reminder that with the Cold War officially ended or not, the Berlin Wall up or down, the world was still a dangerous place, which meant that the country would surely need and want an experienced leader, preferably a Republican, at the helm. Aboard Air Force One at that time, flying with his father from Washington back to the Bush family's vacation home in Maine, was George W. Bush, the president's son. He was just coming of age as a political operative in his own right, and he was euphoric about the meaning of these latest events. "Do you think the American people are going to turn to a Democrat now?" he asked.
Bush himself believed he was invulnerable. He had presided over the end of the Cold War with considerable distinction. He had handled the delicate job of dealing with the complicated international events that had led to the end of European communism, thereby freeing the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, and perhaps most remarkably of all, gaining, with Russian approval, a unified Germany that was a member of NATO. But typically he had held back on participating in any kind of celebration to mark those stunning events.
When the Berlin Wall had come down, many in the right wing, and a number of people around Bush himself, wanted some kind of ceremony, for this was a historic moment and they believed it deserved a commemoration not unlike those that had attended V-E and V-J Days in World War II, the victories in Europe over Germany, and in the Pacific over Japan. The destruction of the wall represented not merely the West's triumph in a long, difficult struggle against a formidable adversary, but equally important, a triumph in their minds of good over evil, proof that we had been right and they had been wrong, and that our system was politically, economically, ethically, and spiritually superior to theirs. At the very least there should be, they believed, one momentous speech to recount the history of the Cold War and celebrate the victory of the forces of light over darkness.
But Bush was uncomfortable with the idea of a celebration, aware that he had little flare for the dramatic. "I'm not going to dance on the wall," he told his aides. Even as the wall was coming down, Marlin Fitzwater, his press officer, had invited a small group of reporters into the Oval Office to talk with the president, but they found his answers cautious, curiously without emotion, almost joyless. Bush was sparring with them. Why wasn't he more excited? a reporter asked. I'm not an emotional kind of guy, he answered. "Maybe," he said later by way of explaining his self-restraint, "I should have given them one of these," and he leapt in the air in a parody of a then popular Toyota commercial portraying a happy car owner jumping and clicking his heels together. On Saturday Night Live, a comic named Dana Carvey, who often parodied Bush, showed him watching scenes of Berliners celebrating the destruction of the wall but refusing to join in. "Wouldn't be prudent," he said. Then Carvey-as-Bush pointed at himself: "Place in history? Se-cure!"
Copyright © 2001 by The Amateurs, Inc.
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