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The Presidency of George Herbert
Walker Bush
In the 1988 presidential campaign, the
Republican candidate, Vice President George
Bush, was said to have the best resume in
Washington. Bush won the Distinguished Service
Cross during World War II, made a fortune in the
Texas oil business, and then, went to Washington
where he served as a Congressman,
ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to
China, and director of the CIA. His Democratic
opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael
Dukakis, was a serious, hardworking son of
Greek immigrants.
Mudslinging and personal invective are nothing new in
American politics, but the 1988 campaign was
unusually vacuous and cynical. Real differences
between the candidates were submerged in a battle
over character, abortion, prison furloughs, school
prayer, and patriotism. The campaign dramatized a
development that had been reshaping American
politics since the late 1960s: the growing power of
media consultants and pollsters, who marketed
candidates by emphasizing imagery and symbolism. At
the end of a race that saw both candidates use
negative campaigning, Bush was elected the 41st
president of the United States with 56 percent of the
popular vote.
In his inaugural address, Bush signaled a
departure from the avarice and greed of
the Reagan era by calling for a "new
engagement in the lives of others." He
promised to be more of a "hands on"
administrator than his predecessor, and he
committed his presidency to creating a
"kinder, gentler" nation, more sensitive and
caring to the poor and disadvantaged.
During his first years in office, President Bush and the
Democratic-controlled Congress addressed many issues
ignored during the Reagan years. For the first time in
eight years, the minimum wage was raised from $3.35 to
$4.25 an hour. Congress amended federal air pollution
laws in order to reduce noxious emissions and acid rain.
In other actions, Congress prohibited job discrimination
against the disabled, required nutrition labeling on
processed foods, and expanded immigration into the
United States.
In two areas, critics accused President
Bush of reneging on his promise of a
"kinder, gentler" nation. He vetoed a new
civil rights bill bolstering protections for
minorities and women against job
discrimination on the grounds that it would
lead to quotas. Bush also vetoed a bill that
would have provided up to six months of
unpaid family leave for workers with newly
born or adopted children or for
The first important foreign policy act of the Bush
administration was an invasion of Panama, which
the Pentagon called Operation Just Cause. The
origins of the conflict stretched back to 1987
when a high Panamanian military official accused
strongman General Manuel Antonio Noriega of
committing fraud in the 1984 presidential election
and of drug trafficking.
Bush dispatched a force of 10,000 troops to
safeguard the lives of Americans and to
protect the integrity of the Panama Canal
treaties. Between 300 and 800 Panamanian
civilians and military personnel died during
the invasion; there were 23 American
casualties. Noriega was forced out of power
and deported to the United States to stand
trial for drug trafficking.
In 1990, following the example of Eastern Europe, the three Baltic
states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia announced their
independence, and other Soviet republics demanded greater
sovereignty. Nine of the 15 Soviet republics agreed to sign a new
union treaty, granting far greater freedom and autonomy to
individual republics. But in August 1991, before the treaty could be
signed, conservative Communists tried to oust Gorbachev in a
coup d'etat. Boris Yeltsin, the President of the Russian Republic,
and his supporters defeated the coup, undermining support for the
Communist Party. Gorbachev fell from power. The Soviet Union
ended its existence in December 1991, when Russia and most
other republics formed the Commonwealth of Independent States.
At 2 a.m., August 2, 1990, some 80,000
Iraqi troops invaded and occupied Kuwait, a
small, oil-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf.
This event touched off the first major
international crisis of the post-Cold War era.
Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, justified the
invasion on the grounds that Kuwait, which
he accused of intentionally depressing
world oil prices, was a historic part of Iraq.
On August 6, 1990, President Bush dramatically
declared, "This aggression will not stand." With
Iraqi forces poised near the Saudi Arabian border,
the Bush administration dispatched 180,000
troops to protect the Saudi kingdom. In a sharp
departure from American foreign policy during the
Reagan presidency, Bush also organized an
international coalition against Iraq.
In November 1990, the crisis took a dramatic
turn. President Bush doubled the size of
American forces deployed in the Persian Gulf, a
sign that the administration was prepared to eject
Iraq from Kuwait by force. The president went to
the United Nations for a resolution permitting the
use of force against Iraq if it did not withdraw by
January 15, 1991. After a heated debate,
Congress also gave the president authority to
wage war.
The allied ground campaign relied on deception,
mobility, and overwhelming air superiority to
defeat the larger Iraqi army. The allied strategy
was to mislead the Iraqis into believing that the
allied attack would occur along the Kuwaiti
coastline and Kuwait's border with Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf,
American commander of the coalition forces,
shifted more than 300,000 American, British, and
French troops into western Saudi Arabia, allowing
them to strike deep into Iraq.
Only 100 hours after the ground campaign started, the
war ended. Saddam Hussein remained in power, but his
ability to control events in the region was dramatically
curtailed. The Persian Gulf conflict was the most popular
U.S. war since World War II. It restored American
confidence in its position as the world's sole superpower
and helped to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam that had
haunted American foreign policy debates for nearly two
decades. The doubt, drift, and demoralization that began
with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal
appeared to have ended.
In 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton defeated
George Bush and Texas businessman Ross Perot to
become the first Democratic president in 12 years. The
campaign was a bitter, three-way contest marked by
intense assaults on the candidates’ records and
President George Bush, whose popularity had soared to
90 percent after the Persian Gulf War, only received 38
percent of the vote--largely as a result of a stagnating
economy. Clinton obtained 43 percent of the vote, while
Perot received 19 percent.