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The Calm Before the Storm

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The Calm Before the Storm

George H. W. Bush presided over a country on the cusp of profound technological, demographic, and economic change. December 5, 2018

As is customary for a U.S. president’s death, George H.W. Bush’s passing inspires reminiscence, even for Americans less engaged in current events. A presidency brings back memories of lost conversations and seminal moments. The mind becomes a View-Master, running images of departed loved ones, forgotten aspirations, and a time far different from the present. Bush’s death is particularly poignant, for his presidency, when compared with succeeding administrations, embodied a deceptively calmer, more stable period. 

Nostalgic reels of the Bush years affirm the nation’s dramatic transformation. Bush personified a background disappearing from the upper echelons of public service—the son of a WASP elite, he nevertheless volunteered for military combat, compiling a heroic war record with humility before ascending the ladder of corporate America and politics. Bush’s campaigns were ambitious and sometimes ruthless, but pursued without the bombast and self-aggrandizement that now afflicts our culture. When Bush entered the White House in 1989, he presided over a nation just beginning to feel the symptoms of socioeconomic dysfunction. 

The Bush years are often linked with Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis (the book by that title came out in 1992, Bush’s last year in office), with the 41st president carefully navigating America through a prosperous, unipolar world after the Soviet Union’s momentous collapse. But Bush’s focus on foreign policy, from the military’s overlooked invasion of Panama to the Gulf War against Iraq, fed a perception among voters that the president was not attentive to domestic affairs. This impression, especially after a brief recession, proved fateful when Bill Clinton prevailed over Bush in the 1992 presidential election. 

But a closer inspection of Bush’s presidency, looking beyond his achievements and failures, reveals how Americans lived and where communities, workplaces, and families were headed.  In 1990, just over 15 percent of U.S. households owned bulky desktop computers—ornaments of amusement, rather than omniscient disrupters of privacy and productivity. Within a year, the Worldwide Web became publicly accessible. By 1993, when Bush departed the White House, AT&T had launched “You Will,” a prophetic marketing campaign that showed television viewers how communications technology would change their lives. The fast-paced commercials, narrated by actor Tom Selleck, teased seductively convenient gadgets, from smartwatches and voice-recognition tools to GPS navigation systems and video on demand. The ad campaign heralded a decade that would end with cowhide-patterned boxes holding Gateway computers, email, and instant messaging, and Internet browsers that revolutionized work, entertainment, and communication. 

During Bush’s presidency, Americans could still out-earn previous generations, and attending college remained a path to viable middle-class employment. According to one study, college students in 1990 typically graduated with debt equivalent to nearly 30 percent of their annual earnings. By 2015, this rate had increased to 74 percent. Students pursuing graduate school in 1990 had, on average, $19,400 in debt, compared with today’s average of $65,000. Since 1990, the wages for college graduates working full-time have increased by 1.6 percent. For millennials, earning less than their baby boomer parents did at 30 has become an inescapable financial reality

Financial burdens and inadequate employment naturally engender feelings of hopelessness and despair. Such trends undoubtedly contribute to America’s rising suicide rate and opioid epidemic (U.S. life expectancy has dropped for a third year in a row). Socioeconomic insecurities existed during Bush’s presidency as well, but not to today’s extent. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there were 628,000 first-time abusers of prescription opioids in 1990 (this was before the FDA’s approval of OxyContin in 1996). That same year, Newsweek ran a cover story on “The Promise of Prozac,” a game-changing antidepressant medication. By the mid-2010s, the number of first-time abusers of prescription opioids numbered in the millions. Psychopharmacology, meanwhile, is now a lucrative industry, with one in six American adults taking some form of psychiatric medication. A quarter-century after Bush left the White House, we’re not a happier nation. 

America certainly confronted challenges during Bush’s one term. Big cities struggled with population loss, rampant crime, and abandoned neighborhoods. The nation’s industrial decline was well underway, with vanishing jobs hastening the collapse of heartland communities. By 1990, Wal-Mart had become America’s largest retailer, its mammoth box stores sealing the fate of smaller towns’ downtown retail. As Daniel McCarthy has observed, “The problems America faces now—in foreign policy, economics, and even with multiculturalism and immigration—were already glaring when Bush was president. He failed to address them then, and now they are of a much greater magnitude.” 

Did Bush’s one term ultimately lead to Donald Trump? The 1992 presidential election produced insurgent candidates Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot, and signaled that voters yearned for an administration that addressed widespread discontent. By 2016, those voters flocked to Trump. Among his supporters were middle-class families who remembered life in the early 1990s. As Bush is laid to rest this week, their memories will be jogged again: they might recall their rented townhomes or mortgaged houses, with the Ford Taurus parked out front. At night, they watched network news, listened to messages on an answering machine, played music on a stereo system, and read a hometown evening newspaper. They had young children, held stable jobs, and attended church. Their president was congenial and cerebral, moderate in disposition. Life was calmer, communities more cohesive.

But for countless Americans, that world is long gone. History will judge whether it was already collapsing by the Bush years, when America stood on the cusp of the technological, demographic, and economic changes remaking the country today. 

Photo Library of Congress

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