George H.W. Bush Received a Profile in Courage Award. All It Took Was Rewriting History.
It turns out that all it takes to transform cowardice into courage is 22 years, a touch of amnesia and a bit of fairy dust from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
On Sunday, the Kennedy Library gave its “Profile in Courage Award” to former President George H.W. Bush for bravely agreeing in 1990 to sign a budget deal that contained tax increases, even though he had memorably declared during the 1988 campaign “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
Here’s the Kennedy Library’s version of what happened:
“He had promised Americans no new taxes during the presidential campaign two years earlier and he was voted into office with that promise. But, he had also promised to serve his country, and he decided that was the promise he would keep…. America’s gain was President Bush’s loss, and his decision to put country above party and political prospects makes him an example of a modern profile in courage that is all too rare.”
I was covering economic policy for The Washington Post from 1990 through 1993, and things were not that simple. First, making the pledge was a political maneuver that Bush must have known was not sustainable given the mounting federal deficits in the 1980s.
Second, he held out for a long time to avoid breaking the pledge; the deadlock with House Democrats forced the government to briefly shut down. He did not lead the way to a tax deal; he made Democrats push hard for it and let his budget director figure out how to package it.
Third, after signing the budget deal, Bush tried to distance himself from it. Even before the formal signing ceremony, he said at a press conference that he “had to gag and digest” parts of the deal. Later he was pressed by some of his political advisers to renounce the deal when he was campaigning for reelection in 1992. On March 3, 1992, Bush declared in a public appearance and interviews that the 1990 deal was a mistake. “If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t do what I did then, for a lot of reasons, including political reasons,” he said.