|George H. W. Bush|
The passing of former president George H. W. Bush gives us a chance to think about lessons learned and opportunities missed. Bush’s most famous speech line came in his Acceptance Speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Having served as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President for eight years, Bush had been a shoo-in favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. By 1988, the Republican Party’s formerly complex economic policy had come down to opposing taxes, especially taxes that might bother rich people. Accordingly, Bush mentioned taxes seven times during the speech. Bush's most famous line was also his most unwise: “My opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no, and they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say, to them, 'Read my lips: No new taxes.'" He later found it necessary to raise taxes, and some people think this is not only why he lost his 1992 reelection campaign, but also why Republicans have been reluctant to compromise ever since.
Read my lips: No new taxes. That was an impossible promise to keep. In general, I’m leery of politicians who make absolute promises. When I think of them, I’m reminded of a Bible story.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Book 23, a group of religious conservatives, who found the apostle Paul’s preaching to be disturbing, swore a murderous oath that they would neither eat nor drink until Paul was dead. Paul’s nephew got wind of the plot and informed a Roman officer, who assigned 470 soldiers, no fewer, to guard Paul. They escorted Paul safely to the governor, Felix, for trial; Felix ruled that Paul should be sent to Rome so the Emperor could judge his case.
I have often wondered what happened to the cruel but foolish men who swore neither to eat nor drink until Paul was dead. Once their mission failed, they faced a choice: they could break their oath by eating and drinking, or they could die of thirst and starvation. The Bible doesn’t say which. They had sealed themselves up into a difficult situation, had they not?
A promise never to raise taxes sounds good, and conservative voters will like hearing it. But there are many times that taxes need to be raised. Government revenues might be insufficient to fund necessary programs. The government might need to raise taxes to cool an inflationary economy. In Bush’s case, a contributing factor was that Republicans did not control both houses of Congress, and Bush needed to offer a compromise to get Democrats to agree to the budget. Congress did push him to raise taxes, just as he had warned, and he caved. Really, what else could he have done?
Bush did not agree to a large increase in taxes. Most people probably didn’t even notice: I certainly did not when I filed my tax return. Most people did know, however, that he had broken his unreasonable and unrealistic promise.
Be careful what you say when you’re running for office. What you say might come back to haunt you. Candidates can make all kinds of unrealistic promises: presidents and other government officials must deal with the real world.
By the way, I heard President George H. W. Bush speak in person at a 2002 rhetoric conference at the Bush Presidential Library. Conference organizer Martin Medhurst found Bush in his office and brought him down to meet with us for a few minutes. He gave an articulate, charming, and complimentary talk. I was lucky enough to expand my own brief talk at the conference into a book chapter.
It really is a shame that a single unwise statement, drafted by a speechwriter (in this case, Peggy Noonan) who would never need to accept responsibility for what she wrote, came to define an entire presidency. It would be more proper for us to remember Bush for saying, in the same speech, “I want a kinder, and gentler nation.” That was more typical of his real feelings.
But, then again, words make a difference, don’t they? And no matter who wrote it, Bush, and not his staff, was responsible for making his unwise, absolute, and unkeepable promise.
Image: Official White House portrait via Wikimedia Commons