Having lost a tough election in 1992 to Democrat Bill Clinton, President George Herbert Walker Bush, who had seemed unbeatable after the first Persian Gulf War, swallowed hard and accepted defeat.
The elder Bush could cite several reasons for not winning a second term:
- Less-than-fervent support from conservatives, who did not forgive him for walking back a pledge at the 1988 Republican National Convention to “Read my lips: No new taxes.” In the end, Bush compromised with Democrats on a 1990 federal budget that did indeed, raise some taxes. Challenger Pat Buchanan hammered him with those six words in the Republican primaries.
- The effective third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, which siphoned off 19% of the popular vote, though Perot may have made a comparable dent in Clinton’s support.
- And probably most of all, a struggling economy that had seen the unemployment rate spike to 7.8%, the highest level at that time since 1984.
So here he was, following the Clinton inauguration, about to cede the White House to his victorious opponent.
But first, Bush decided to compose a parting note for his successor, neatly handwritten in cursive on White House stationery, and placed in the Oval Office. Here is what it said:
Jan. 20, 1993
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I'm not a very good one to give advice; but just don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you.
Good luck — George
Upon Bush’s death, Clinton wrote in a 2018 column for The Washington Post that Bush's note conveyed "the heart of who he was. ... He was an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future."
Bush's letter was widely quoted before when America seemed torn asunder by deep divisions during a fierce campaign ... in 2016.
We seem torn asunder again.
So, as another November approaches, it bears quoting again, for its decency and its civility and its uncommon sense of grace.
To be sure, George H.W. Bush had his imperfections and his failures.
For instance, it was his 1988 campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis that gave us the Willie Horton ads that stoked racial divisions and played on white voters’ fears.
But Bush did seem genuinely wedded to an idea that was bigger than him: The idea of America. And of its citizens being able to disagree vehemently over some things, yet still being capable of uniting for a greater cause.
And being willing as well to respect the outcome of an election.
Bush and Clinton grew close.
"His friendship has been one of the great gifts of my life," Bill Clinton wrote in his Washington Post column.
"From Indonesia to Houston, from the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast to Kennebunkport, Maine — where just a few months ago we shared our last visit, as he was surrounded by his family but clearly missing Barbara — I cherished every opportunity I had to learn and laugh with him. I just loved him."
That may be why, even in the midst of his loss, Bush’s approval rating was 56% when he left office.
And it may be why he may have departed 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in defeat in 1993.
But he didn’t leave a loser.
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