As a star of “Saturday Night Live” during the misunderstood presidency of George H.W. Bush, Dana Carvey had people across the country repeating, as a laugh line: “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.” Carvey’s Bush impersonation captured the distinctive syntax of a patrician Yankee who was taught by his formidable mother that speaking in the first person was bad form.
But what made the phrase so distinctively Bushian was “prudent,” an antique word that not only signaled his blue blood (as in, “Dink and Muffy agree that it’s prudent to re-shingle the summer cottage”) but also summed up the president in two syllables.
Bush, who died Nov. 30 at 94 — the longest-lived president in U.S. history — wasn’t known for excitement or inspiration. His prudence, however, was no joke. Judged by Aristotle and Aquinas to be among the highest virtues, prudence is the disciplined use of wise and careful foresight. In modern usage, it is often confused with overcaution, even cowardice. But true prudence is not afraid of risk; it respects risk enough to calculate it.
We tend to forget how dangerous the world was when Bush became president in 1989 after eight years as Ronald Reagan’s understudy. In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev promised openness and reform, but exactly what this meant for the shape of the world was unclear. The changes came fast and furiously. Within less than a year, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan; Chinese soldiers massacred protesters in Tiananmen Square; communist governments fell in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania; and the Berlin Wall came down.
Taken individually, each of these events was welcome news for the United States and its allies; even the bloodshed in China, horrific as it was, bespoke a rising generation with dreams of freedom. Taken together, they threatened to unbalance the world order.
Bush’s delicate task was to allow the Soviet Union to unwind with a measure of dignity while carefully expanding the Western umbrella. He needed to measure his steps and see around corners. Bush understood how nervous Europeans would be about German unification, for example, and carefully assured the Poles, the French, the Russians and others that the United States, through NATO, could prevent another rise of militaristic nationalism in the new Germany.
This was unmarked trail. When was the map ever remade and power restructured without the sledgehammer of violence? Bush’s prudent diplomacy led some enemies, and even some friends, to mistake caution for weakness. (“This is no time to go wobbly!” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed to have scolded him at one point.) They forgot this was a man who, at 18, found it prudent to lead a bomber crew into combat as one of the youngest U.S. Navy aviators of World War II.
In the summer of 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein pressed this error too far, gambling that he could steal neighboring Kuwait and Bush wouldn’t stop him. Over the next seven months, Bush orchestrated a masterpiece of prudent leadership, drawing on the resume that made him perhaps the best-prepared president ever. The former congressman handled the politics of building a bipartisan consensus in Washington. The former U.N. ambassador patiently walked the United Nations through one resolution after another, tightening the screws on Hussein. The former director of the CIA foresaw the intrigues of Middle Eastern politics and cut off Hussein’s attempts to exploit them. The former envoy to China won Beijing’s passive approval of “all necessary means” to liberate Kuwait.
The global coalition that ultimately joined Operation Desert Storm, stretching from Niger to New Zealand, Poland to Pakistan, was a sign of widespread confidence in Bush’s ability to wield American hegemony with care. And his decision to halt the operation with Hussein still in power vindicated that confidence. For unlike his son and his son’s reckless counselors — Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, most egregiously — the senior President Bush understood that prudence advised against toppling the dictator without a good idea of what could take his place.
Two years plus six weeks after George H.W. Bush took office, the world was a different place than the elder Bush had found it, and he had demonstrated how well the new world could work. It’s shocking, really, to look back on 1992 and see how little this achievement counted with American voters. Having won some 49 million votes in his 1988 landslide, Bush was sent home after a single term with barely 39 million in his column.
The nation apparently wanted something more exciting. Hoo boy, have we gotten it: Oval Office sexcapades, an impeachment, the heedless invasion of Iraq followed some eight years later by the heedless withdrawal of U.S. troops, an economic crash — all leading up to the wild improvisations of President Donald Trump. There are no do-overs in history. But I believe if we’d known then what we know now, we would have said: Not gonna do it.
Wouldn’t be prudent.
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for the Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.” Follow him @DavidVonDrehle.