In June of 2017, I had the opportunity to speak with John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor who served as chief of staff for the late President George H.W. Bush. During our conversation, we discussed how Kathleen Kennedy Townsend — the former Maryland lieutenant governor and daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy — had claimed the former president had told her he was voting for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, according to Politico.
If that was true, Bush was the first former president not to support his own party's presidential nominee since Theodore Roosevelt spurned William Howard Taft in 1912 — and on that occasion, Roosevelt was actually running against President Taft as a third-party candidate. Yet Sununu, who had written a fantastic book about Bush's achievements as president, insisted that Townsend was mistaken.
"No, he said he wasn't going to vote for Donald Trump, but he did not endorse Hillary Clinton," Sununu protested. "I know people who were in the same conversation who said [Townsend] was misconstruing what the president said."
If that was true, I asked Sununu, why hadn't Bush clarified that? Although Bush spokesman Jim McGrath had issued a statement saying that Bush's upcoming vote was "private" and that he would make no further comment on the presidential race, McGrath had not denied that the conversation occurred or that Bush had made his preference known to Townsend. As both Sununu and I were aware, Bush had the chance to discredit the Politico story, and had not done so.
"Because he didn't want to get involved into a long debate," Sununu argued.
Maybe this was because Bush had in fact voted for Hillary Clinton, I suggested.
Sununu responded by telling me that he didn't want to say who the president voted for, and when I asked whether Bush had in fact voted for neither Clinton nor Trump, he said that while he would not "speak explicitly for someone else ... in my opinion, that's closer to the truth."
There is a reason why this conversation seems relevant as we honor the passing of America's 41st president: The senior Bush is being widely remembered as the last "moderate" Republican president. This reputation isn't entirely accurate: Bush was no doubt more moderate than his son, George W. Bush, and was an entirely different kind of president than Trump, but he was still quite conservative on a number of issues (as Sununu's own book makes clear). The key to understanding George H.W. Bush is to realize that he was skilled at implementing conservative policies through subdued and conciliatory methods, rather than through bluster and division.
That did little to slow or stop the Republican Party's drift to the right — indeed, when Bush agreed to be Ronald Reagan's running mate in the 1980 campaign, he abandoned his previous criticism of Reagan's right-wing ideology. (Bush had had once famously described Reagan's as "voodoo economics.") By the time Bush was himself elected president in 1988, he had moved as far to the right on many issues as the man he had once characterized as too extreme, but was not nearly as controversial.
As my colleague Amanda Marcotte has pointed out, there are also uncomfortable parallels between Bush's presidency and Trump's:
He had appointed an accused sexual predator to the Supreme Court ... he had switched from pro-choice to anti-choice out of political expedience, and he had hired Roger Ailes to help run a political campaign that relied heavily on race-baiting. ... These are all literally things Trump also did. Bush helped lay the groundwork for Trump's rise.
The fact that Bush managed to do those things while being relatively inoffensive — as Garance Franke-Ruta wrote in New York magazine about Bush's inactivity during the AIDS crisis, he practiced "a kinder gentler indifference" toward the suffering of those Americans who needed him most — hardly erases those facts from his legacy.
That said, it does matter that Bush declined to deny the report that he planned to vote for Clinton instead of Trump — an obvious humiliation for the future president.
Some of Bush's apparent antipathy for Trump is just common sense. I phrased it this way during my exchange with Sununu:
Considering Bush's more moderate stances, considering the fact that he was an internationalist whereas Trump seems to be more isolationist, considering that Bush was a free trader and Trump seems to be more protectionist, considering that Trump openly insulted Bush's son on many occasions, I would venture a guess — even though you know him and I don't — that he probably doesn't think very highly of Trump.
In addition, Bill Clinton, who defeated Bush in the 1992 election, had developed a close friendship with Bush during his later years, when both were out of politics. So Bush had both personal and political reasons not to vote for Trump -- and quite conceivably to vote for Hillary Clinton instead.
Of course we don't know how the former president cast his ballot, and that doesn't matter much in itself. But in symbolic terms, it underscores that there were limits to the conservatism represented by the Reagan-Bush era. There were still boundaries when it came to how far Republicans of the 1980s and '90s would go when it came to open racism, reactionary economic policy, unilateral foreign policy and outright contempt toward their political opponents. Displaying dignity and showing respect to friend and foe alike actually matters, especially in a president. George H.W. Bush recognized this and refused to embrace a fellow Republican who rejected that kind of civility, and that redounds to his credit.
Amid the sharply polarized Trump era, the late President Bush seems like a symbol of a better time. But the reality is that Bush's presidency did little to change the course of the Republican Party, which led inexorably to Trump. Bush broke with more than a century of precedent by not endorsing a presidential candidate from his own party, but that had no discernible impact on the 2016 election. It was honorable, but it was arguably too little and too late.