The Obama-Bush Connection

George H.W. Bush was delighted with his guest. Last Friday at the 41st president's library on the campus of Texas A&M in College Station, Bush and President Obama met to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Points of Light service program, part of Bush 41's legacy to the country. Unfailingly polite, Bush wrote the Aggie community before Obama's visit. The note was fairly anodyne, but 41 was worried about an adverse reaction to the incumbent on the largely conservative campus. "Along with the administration, faculty, and so many of you, I am honored that The President, our President, is taking the time and making the effort to come to College Station … This is not about politics."

There is a small grammatical clue here about how deeply Bush felt that Obama was to be treated with courtesy: 41 capitalizes the T in "The President" (and obviously the P) when he wants to invest the office with the highest possible importance and dignity. In the weeks after September 11, in a note to me declining a request for an interview for the magazine, Bush concluded: "Please say a prayer for our beloved son, The President." Now Barack Obama holds ultimate responsibility, and, in Bush's view, deserves ultimate respect.

The common wisdom—a phrase 41 uses more often than "conventional wisdom"—is that Obama is an heir of 41's style, particularly in the diplomatic realm. The storyline is clear: Obama is more like George W. Bush's father than George W. Bush ever was.

That argument is at best incomplete and at worst wrong. The Bushes have always been much more complicated than their caricatures. (A word of disclosure: I am at work on a biography of George H.W. Bush.) Bush 41 was a great multilateralist—one of the best ever—but he took a much tougher early stand against Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait than many in Washington, in New York, and around the world. We tend to forget the close-fought nature of the Senate vote authorizing the use of force, when lawmakers like Joe Biden and Sam Nunn opposed the president. And yes, 41 did go to the United Nations to win approval for military action against Saddam, but he was also quite prepared to turn Desert Shield into Desert Storm even if the U.N. vote had gone the other way.

If the first President Bush was more willing to use force than is sometimes remembered, his son was more open to diplomacy, especially in his last years in office, than is virtually ever remembered.

The image of Obama and the senior Bush together brought to mind another moment, long ago. In the wake of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, President Kennedy invited Dwight Eisenhower to Camp David. JFK had won in 1960 by saying we were too complacent at home and were losing ground to the communists abroad. Suddenly, however, once confronted by the complexities of the presidency, Kennedy found that perhaps Eisenhower was not so out of it after all. The photograph of the two men, taken from the back (Ike is carrying his hat), shoulder to shoulder, embodies a truth that remains relevant now: for all the sound and fury of the arena, on big issues American presidents tend to have more in common with one another than one might at first think. There is a presidential character intrinsic to the office. Part of this is because what seemed black and white while you were running looks a lot grayer once ultimate power is yours, and part of it is that the country changes presidents more frequently than the country changes itself. We are a center-right nation politically and culturally, which means we value moderate governance—and we punish those who stray too far one way or the other. (See Clinton in 1993–94, or George W. Bush between roughly 2003 and late 2006.)

Like Bush 41, Obama seems temperamentally incapable of extremism. Now, since the foregoing sentence will make conservatives' heads explode, here is a final point likely to drive liberals to distraction: from Guantánamo to the bailout of the financial system to antiterror tactics, Barack Obama is a lot more like George W. Bush (or at least the George W. Bush of his later years in office) than almost anybody involved—including, I suspect, Obama or Bush 43—would readily admit. At their best, both of them have worked to govern as presidents, not as partisans, which is the way good men have always conducted themselves in that office.

Obama—"The President," in Bush 41's formulation—will always be shouted at and about. But remembering that he, like his predecessors, is working within commonly accepted political boundaries may help put the shouting in context.