The author Richard Ben Cramer wrote one of the best books ever about presidential candidates, “What It Takes,” profiling those who sought the presidency in 1988. The refreshing thing about the book was that it didn’t set out to be an investigative expose, just a look at the character, the backgrounds, the motivations for those who wanted to be president.
The election itself, of course, was a snoozer, with Vice President George Bush beating Democrat Michael Dukakis. Yes, there were some memorable moments, goofs, including Bush’s “Read my lips” no-tax-hike pledge and Dukakis appearing in a, shall we say, unflattering combat helmet. Bush was given to rhetorical mistakes, Dukakis to uninspiring and often boring speeches.
But the bottom line in Cramer’s work was that on the whole, the people who ran for president were patriotic, upright, sincere, admirable people, no matter how much hot, sometimes ill-tempered and poorly conceived rhetoric flew at them and from them.
The book came to mind a few days ago, when the remote control stopped on one of the cable news channels as former President George W. Bush was about to speak in South Carolina, making his first campaign appearance since leaving office in 2009. The purpose was to introduce his brother, Jeb, badly trailing in a disappointing run for the Republican nomination. The pundits doubtless were waiting, wondering if “W” would stumble, as he sometimes has, behind a microphone.
They were disappointed. As were, no doubt, some of the former president’s chronic critics.
He made what most certainly is the best speech of the Republican campaign, and perhaps of the entire campaign. He appeared relaxed, the years having thinned his hair just a bit, but he was not presidentially pressed and seemed a man at ease with himself, and having no regrets about the past seven years of not being the leader of the free world. He joked about his painting and his ranching.
Indeed, the former president may not have busied himself with the admirable deeds for the poor of former President Jimmy Carter, or a “global initiative” such as that founded by Bill Clinton, but he has not attacked his successor and has maintained the kind of dignity a former president should maintain. (The same can’t be said of his vice president, whose angry expressions of criticisms of President Obama have been disappointing indeed. Bush, for his part has been ... well, classy.)
And, with his brother in mind of course, he gave a splendid view of what the presidency ought to be — a place for serious people, people not inclined toward fire-breathing rhetoric, demagoguery, appealing to the angry emotions of the public.
“I understand,” he said, “Americans are angry and frustrated, but we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our frustration. We need someone who can fix the problems that cause our anger and frustration ... and that’s Jeb Bush.”
Whether one agrees with Bush’s choice of his brother as problem-solver, his sentiments about what a president should be are right. And he spoke of their mother, their father, the family, their values. Were some of his remarks aimed at the blustering of Donald John Trump? Most certainly, but he didn’t give Trump the satisfaction of mentioning him by name. “All of the sloganeering and all of the talk doesn’t matter,” he said, “if we don’t win.”
One suspects George W. Bush— and this often is the case with ex-presidents — has a measure of sympathy for the trials of the man who succeeded him. No one can know the burdens of the presidency in the way a former president does. He remains a Republican, a conservative, and most certainly his presidency had some low points, including a war in Iraq and an economic meltdown. But even those who viewed his presidency as less-than-successful saw in South Carolina a glimpse of common sense and decency we hope for in presidents. This campaign, any campaign, needs a measure, preferably a generous measure, of that.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org