George Bush Was the Last True WASP in the White House
By Joseph Epstein
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 5, 2018
In any rating of American presidents, George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president, figures to fall somewhere in the vague middle—18th, say, or 24th. A hundred years from now, he will doubtless be considered one of those presidents about whom not much either is known or has been written: a Polk or Hayes of our day.
He served one term and was noted for a single event—the successful execution of the 100-hour-long Persian Gulf War, though even here critics wished he had pursued the war further. Prominent in the obituaries written about him is his distinction as the last American president to have served in World War II.
Less emphasized is that Bush was our last WASP president. By WASP I do not of course mean merely, as the acronym has it, that he was white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. So are Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, but not even the younger Mr. Bush is a true WASP in the full social context of the term. The elder Bush came from a prominent Eastern Seaboard family, went to the right schools, had the right financial and legal connections, married within his social class, and shared a point of view on private life and an outlook on public service that was essential to the WASP culture.
A synonym for WASP was once “establishment” or “ruling elite.” Elite culture in America has been intermittently under attack since Andrew Jackson. But in its WASP version it took a particularly hard shelling during the 1960s, when it was often the target of student and other protest movements. WASPs were not impregnable to these attacks.
Absorbed in their own tradition, they were less than interested in innovation. Insulated themselves, they were, if not intolerant, then certainly not much concerned about social prejudice or injustice. Imagination was never high on their list of attainments or virtues. Like every aristocratic or upper class, the establishment—if you prefer, the WASPocracy—could not care less about reform.
George H.W. Bush was to the manner born.
(For those curious as to how this exalted, “to the manner born” was obtained, one might refer to the previous article in Israel Commentary
that quoted the following:
(“But the George HW’s apple didn’t fall far either…
The accusations against HW’s father, Sen. Prescott Bush, go well beyond dislike for Jews and discriminatory practices that were typical of New England WASP culture back then. It seems his father was involved with Hitler’s financiers in the later 1920s and 1930s.
Prescott Bush was co-founder and a director of at a New York bank, Union Banking Corp. (UBC), where German businessmen who supported the Nazis, stashed away millions. According to documents from the US National Archives made public in 2003, Bush was still a director at the bank, when its assets were frozen under the Trading With the Enemy Act in 1942.
Stark shades of Nazi lover, Joseph Kennedy and the John Fitzgerald Kennedy “Camelot” mirage) jerome s. kaufman
His father, Prescott Bush, worked on Wall Street and later became a U.S. senator from Connecticut. His family had, and still maintains, a compound at Kennebunkport, Maine. George went to Phillips Academy, then, after an impressive stint as a youthful Navy pilot during World War II, for which he won a Distinguished Flying Cross, he went on to Yale. After Yale, he repaired to Houston, where he went into the oil business, success at which fairly quickly took him out of the financial wars, if ever he was truly in them.
Not long thereafter, he turned to public service. He was a congressman, an envoy to China, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, ambassador to the United Nations. Ronald Reagan, no WASP himself, chose him as his vice president, and after Reagan’s two terms in office, Bush became the first sitting vice president elected to the presidency since Martin Van Buren succeeded Jackson. In none of these offices was Bush notably distinguished; in none an embarrassment or flop. He was a man one could count on to keep the kettle boiling.
When George H.W. Bush ran for president, he attempted to do so not as a WASP but as a Texan. (No Texan could be a WASP; Lyndon Johnson, the ur-Texan, might have been the anti-WASP.) I recall candidate Bush’s remarking his favorite snack was pork rinds and on his fondness for the music of the Oak Ridge Boys. I don’t mean to make him out a phony, only to underscore what must have been his own sense that the day of the WASP was done and his need to play down his having been well-born if he hoped to be elected.
Yet I would contend that it is as a WASP that Bush should be honored. If he had intellectual interests, they remain unknown. If he had distinctive ideas about governance or anything else, he kept them to himself. His most notable utterance—“read my lips,” about his unwillingness to impose a tax hike—he had to recant. One never thinks of the George H.W. Bush years generally, for there was nothing especially notable about them. Yet he had character.
Here his WASP heritage comes into play. One felt he was steady, honorable, with probity and without deviousness, a man one could count on to preserve the dignity of the presidency. With George H.W. Bush in the White House one didn’t have to think about fellatio in the Oval Office, about vice presidents running the show, about a president’s ambivalence toward his own country, about vanity bigger than the Ritz (or perhaps I should say “than the Trump Tower”).
Unlike every president since, one never felt that George H.W. Bush was essentially in business for himself. He always had service in mind. No small thing, this, when one comes to think about it—no, no small thing at all.
Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.”
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