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Read My Lips: H.W. Knew The Power of Presidential TV
December 1, 2018  | By Eric Gould  | 2 comments

He wasn’t the best television president, but George H.W. Bush had his share of memorable TV moments that will live on, making him a significant player in the history of governing through television.

From John F. Kennedy forward, presidents had to understand and exploit the power of television to get elected, and to govern. At some point, the image and the sound-bite became almost more important than the policy itself.

The Kennedy camp maybe understood this first and best, outmaneuvering Richard Nixon for the first televised debates, and outwitting him to appear with little make-up. Nixon left an indelible rough, unpolished image next to the charismatic, younger Kennedy.

Being folksy yet authoritative in front of the camera was Ronald Reagan’s advantage in unseating the incumbent: peanut farmer Jimmy Carter in 1980. After that, Reagan became known as The Great Communicator for his speeches heavy on patriotic prose, and for his assured, avuncular delivery.

Of course, Reagan was a professional actor, the first to see the Oval Office, and that plausibly set the table for someone other than a career politician delivering the State of the Union address. By 1992, there were CEOs and, yes, real estate developers in the hunt as candidates, trying to pass their first television tests.

Reagan dispensed with Bush 41 in 1980, after a sturdy primary challenge in which Bush referred to Reagan's plan to cut taxes and increase spending as "voodoo economics.” It was, perhaps, one of the most rehashed quotes of that campaign, well into that summer's Republican convention, and presumptively would eliminate Bush from any consideration as Reagan's running mate on the ticket as vice-president.

But that’s politics. The quick pivot back to Bush and his core of ardent supporters was no problem. Reagan took a page from Lincoln’s “Cabinet of Enemies” book and tapped him for the vice-presidential slot. Bush answered the "voodoo" questions repeatedly during the 1980 campaign and took the heat as Reagan swept Carter out of the White House in a landslide.

And the heat got turned back on in 1988, except it was sitting Vice-President Bush’s turn to fire away. On the campaign trail, Bush scolded Mike Dukakis, Massachusetts Governor and Democratic Party nominee that, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!" An athletic campaigner, and former fighter pilot, H.W. took easily to speaking on camera, flipping quickly through his notecards, (no TelePrompTers at campaign events back then) and often ran through them rapid-fire like, well, bullet points.

Wherever you stood on his politics, Bush 41 may have been one of the most qualified politicians for the presidency. Having been a U.S. House Representative, Ambassador to China, Director of the CIA, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and Vice-President under Reagan, he had probably seen and done more than any other candidate before him entering the White House… and certainly since.

It was that experience, and his military background, that made it easy to go in for the televised kill during the '88 Presidential campaign. He revved up the conservative core of his party during the convention with a Reagan-like metaphor of America as "a thousand points of light.” His now infamous pledge in the same acceptance speech,  uttered in sharp syllables, "Read my lips. No! New! Taxes!" turned out to be perhaps one of his bigger blunders, as he had to soon backpedal on that pledge, signing a new bipartisan budget that included tax increases.

Bush and his campaign manager, the late Lee Atwater (the political and spiritual Godfather to Karl Rove, Roger Ailes, and others) had successfully characterized Dukakis as a typical tax-and-spend liberal, soft on crime, and soft on defense. They happily ran footage of the smiling, diminutive Dukakis getting a ride in an M-1 Abrams tank with helmet and goggles on, meant by the Dukakis campaign to make him look like a military hawk, but left him looking more like a kid getting a pony ride at a country fair.

But the real killer TV moment of the 1988 campaign was yet to come. Atwater adopted dirt already in the press on the Dukakis crime record, and fleshed out the "Willie Horton" ad campaign. Horton, a convicted felon and in jail serving a life sentence for murder, was part of a Dukakis administration weekend furlough program. It had been a successful part of rehabbing lower level offenders and was later moved up to felony cases like Horton. While out, Horton disappeared. On the run, he committed assault and rape, and was later sentenced to two 85-year terms in Maryland where he was captured.

Some reports had Atwater predicting, "By the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name."

He was right. The Horton ads ran relentlessly, and Dukakis, substantially ahead of Bush after the Democratic Convention, never recovered and lost badly in the November election.

Not a Kennedy or Reagan presidential type, Bush 41 was nevertheless a committed family man and, at his core, a decent and deeply courteous man. He held his own as a televised President.

He had a bit of a curious style of speaking, a combination of his Massachusetts roots mashed up with his early career as a Texas oil entrepreneur. The result was a direct, sincere manner of speaking, but clipped in a New England style, mixed with lots of hand gestures for emphasis.

The result was unique, and served as rich material for Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live throughout his administration from 1988-92. Carvey managed to reduce Bush to a few ticks and hand gestures that became standard catchphrases around the country: Things "wouldn't be prud-ent at this junc-ture,” or simply, he was not going to do something the Democrats wanted him to do, coming out as one word, “Not-gon-na-do-it." (And even that would get comically cut to “nah-godda-du-it…” to the delight of regular SNL Carvey fans.)

The Bush team eventually had Carvey to the White House in 1992 for a meeting with the president, and Bush got his revenge after Carvey performed his impression, making a playful right hook as he got on the stage with him.  (In a recent interview, Carvey emphasized that Bush never took offense and was a fan of the impersonation. With the war and the economy on his plate, Carvey was likely way down on his list of concerns.)

In his own right, as good of a communicator as he was, Bush had one of the more spectacular flops in memory during his reelection bid. The televised tax pledge of 1988 was used against him repeatedly, and coming off his victory of the Gulf War of 1990 (a 24-hour televised war, the first of its kind), the economy tanked the next year, and he finished second to Bill Clinton, getting only 38% of the popular vote in a three-way race including billionaire Ross Perot.

His approval rating had dropped from a high of 90% in 1991 after the war, when he seemed unbeatable, to around 30% just before the November 1992 election.

He didn’t have another sound-bite or television turning moment left. He was up against Clinton, a master of media himself, appearing during the campaign on Arsenio Hall’s late-night show with sunglasses and a saxophone.

It wasn’t prudent, but it helped get Clinton a lot of press. And the Presidency.

And given the rose-colored look-back at Bush's long life, graciousness and well-managed White House, he will be missed.

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Thanks for this helpful article.
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Jan 5, 2023   |  Reply
Yes, JFK was younger than Nixon, but only by 3 years and some months. And Nixon was actually in better health than Kennedy, what with his Addison's disease and constant back pain. But the Kennedy team used the power of television image manipulation to make JFK look vibrant and robust, and Nixon, who was sick on the day of that first debate, look old and jowly by comparison.
Dec 2, 2018   |  Reply
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