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In this, the third volume of America: The Last Best Hope, William J. Bennett explores America's recent and momentous history: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of global Communism; sweeping changes in political and popular culture; the war on terror and the election of America's first African American president. Surveying the players, personalities, and pivotal moments, Bennett captures this recent chapter in the American story with piercing insight and unrelenting optimism.
Two things about George H. W. Bush: he was the kindest boss I ever had. A man of great decency, concerned for others' personal well-being and family, he said yes to any meeting requested and returned every phone call I ever placed to him. His handwritten and typed notes were models of decorum and goodwill, always with an inquiry or wish for a family member or family event he knew about. He was also tremendously athletic—an avid jogger and tennis player, a fine line-drive hitter, to say nothing of skydiving in his retirement. But when spending time with George H. W. Bush, one could not help picking up one overarching sense and theme of the man: a deep, abiding love of country—a quiet patriotism that stirred constantly within. Nowhere did I see this more pronounced than in a 1990 trip to Portland, Oregon, with him. We were looking out a hotel window, predawn, when I had agreed to go jogging with him, and he saw protestors outside burning a pile of items, protesting any number of things. One thing they burned was the American flag. President Bush turned to me and said, "I understand these young people and their protests—but what really gets to me is when they burn the American flag. Nothing gets me like that. Can anything be more disrespectful? Do they have any idea of what people have done to keep that flag held high?" I remember thinking, If only the rest of the world could hear this man and the weight he puts in his deeply reflective moments like that—if only they could see his sense of America. He would be more loved. But that was not the public President Bush; he was always more comfortable keeping his deepest feelings private. To my mind, he was a very emotional man who cared about more people and things than the public record, or he, would ever show.
The years 1988 to 1992 were momentous—in the world and at home we would see CDs outsell vinyl records for the first time and the debut of such famous television shows as Seinfeld and The Simpsons; the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini would call for an international death threat on a British author popular in America and would (himself) die of natural causes in 1989; terrorism would become more pronounced as a violent means of political expression with more Americans being targeted; an Egyptian cleric named Omar Abdel-Rahman (also known as the "Blind Sheikh") would move to America; the Berlin Wall would fall; and the issue of race relations would once again become front and center in American culture and politics—sparked by an incident on the streets of Los Angeles and by the nomination of a second black man to the Supreme Court.
I. The Choppy Seas of the 1988 Election
Vice President George H. W. Bush had a distinguished career in public life. The son of a well-respected U.S. senator, he had enlisted in the navy in 1943, becoming the youngest pilot in the navy at that time, and he flew more than fifty combat missions in World War II, including one where he had to eject from his aircraft in a raid over Japan after his plane was struck by enemy antiaircraft fire. Later, after a career in the oil business in Texas, George H. W. Bush went on to become a member of the House of Representatives from Texas, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, an envoy to the People's Republic of China, and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Vice President Bush had faithfully supported Ronald Reagan through both terms of his dramatic and course-altering presidency. In a city notorious for "leaking," no leaks came from the Bush office. In an office often used for the stronger part of attack-style politics and sometimes more questionable public ethics behavior, Vice President Bush remained the consummate gentleman and clean-government professional—no Spiro Agnew or Richard Nixon, he. When he declared his intention to run for the Republican nomination for president, however, he found he had plenty of opponents.
For starters, there was the Kansan, Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole. A national figure for decades, he had run with President Gerald Ford as his vice presidential nominee in 1976.
Then there was Congressman Jack Kemp, Republican from New York, who represented the charismatic, young Supply-Siders (those who believed in economic growth through marginal tax rate cuts). Kemp was also a social conservative and foreign policy hawk. His base was tied to a philosophy of economic growth through tax cuts, social renewal, and tough rhetoric for the Soviet Union and its satellites. Kemp was the principal author and spokesman on Capitol Hill for the tax cuts that helped define the Reagan presidency and was known for such clever partisan jibes as, "The leaders of the Democratic Party aren't soft on Communism, they're soft on democracy."
Messrs. Dole and Kemp weren't the only opponents. The carefully laid plans of many Republican hopefuls (including Delaware Governor Pete du Pont and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig) were thrown into disarray by the entrance into the race of Rev. Pat Robertson (president of the Christian Broadcasting Network). Robertson's appeal to evangelicals was said to be equivalent in the GOP to Rev. Jesse Jackson's appeal to black Americans in the Democratic ranks. Robertson would prove to disrupt the candidacy of Jack Kemp (himself an evangelical Christian) with the ever-growing base of religious conservatives. In the 1987 bellwether Ames, Iowa, straw poll, Pat Robertson came in first place. By early January 1988, the polls from Iowa (whose caucuses are considered key tests of strength in presidential contests) validated Robertson's strength but showed Bob Dole in the lead. Indeed, Vice President Bush was having problems.
Bush's nomination would typically have been a near coronation because he was the sitting vice president loyally serving a beloved president. Richard Nixon, for example, had had little trouble wrapping up the Republican nomination following eight years' service with the popular Eisenhower in 1960. As party machines began to fade over the years, however, it was becoming necessary to show real strength at the grassroots level and to actually earn the votes of primary voters and activists. Thus, in a split field, Bush's nomination was far from assured.
In January 1988, with polls showing him in second place in the February Iowa caucuses, Vice President Bush went on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather for a wide-ranging interview. Dan Rather was, even then, considered a biased anchor, eager to embarrass Republicans. When Rather tried to badger Bush with questions about his alleged involvement in Iran-Contra, Bush pushed back—strongly. After a series of unremitting questions, the dialogue on national television went this way:
Rather: I don't want to be argumentative, Mr. Vice President.
Bush: You do, Dan.
Rather: No ... no, sir, I don't.
Bush: This is not a great night, because I want to talk about why I want to be president, why those 41 percent of the people are supporting me. And I don't think it's fair ...
Rather: And Mr. Vice President, if these questions are ...
Bush: ... to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?
Rather: Well, Mister ...
Bush: Would you like that?
Rather: Mr. Vice President ...
Bush: I have respect for you, but I don't have respect for what you're doing here tonight.
As the interview began, I had no idea how it would turn out. No one had ever talked back to one of the leaders of what was perceived as the establishment of elite public opinion on the air on his own program. But Vice President Bush traded fire for fire here, pointing out—on Dan Rather's own broadcast—that Rather had an imperfect past as well; for example, the previous year he had walked off his television camera set when the U.S. Open was still airing on his network even though it was time for the news. When the cameras went live to the news, many affiliates throughout the country had nothing to air because Rather was nowhere to be found.
For many years, George H. W. Bush had been seen as somewhat disconnected from the conservative grassroots of the Republican Party, too genteel to stand up for conservative principles, too close to the establishment, too Northeast preppy and not enough Midwest, Southwest, or just plain West as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan had been. For many grassroots conservatives who had long distrusted Bush's ties to the GOP's eastern establishment, the headline of a 1987 Newsweek cover and profile of the vice president said it all: "Fighting the Wimp Factor." As presidential historian Timothy Naftali put it, "No one questioned the physical courage of the World War II veteran, and eternally young tennis player and jogger. It was his political courage that was in question." With this highly publicized clash with Dan Rather, Bush came close to erasing these doubts.
But not close enough for the voters of Iowa. Dole, as expected, won big in the Hawkeye State. Robertson came in second.
Bush was undeterred. He turned the tables in the next key contest, New Hampshire, and charged Dole with being a tax raiser. New Hampshire Republicans were (and are) famously averse to higher taxes. After aggressively retooling his campaign, Bush soundly won the New Hampshire primary. Dole came in second and Jack Kemp, third. Pat Robertson's campaign seemed an Iowa anomaly with little steam to continue nationally, and Jack Kemp was soon to realize it would be awfully difficult to persuade the public that he was a stronger disciple of Ronald Reagan's principles than Ronald Reagan's vice president—no matter how long Kemp had been a philosophical conservative. Following his defeat in New Hampshire, Dole was asked in a televised interview if he had a message for the vice president. Dole snarled, "Stop lying about my record!" That unhappy comment, as much as his New Hampshire defeat, effectively ended Dole's run in 1988. Within just weeks, Bush swept the primaries of Super Tuesday and wrapped up the Republican nomination.
For the Democrats, Senator Gary Hart of Colorado had been regarded as the leading candidate. But he made the mistake of inviting a young woman, not his wife, to spend the night in his Washington townhome—after challenging the press to tail him. Hart denied all impropriety and denounced the reporters who "hid in the bushes" to trap him. Then a tabloid newspaper published a picture of him with the woman on his lap. They were shown aboard a pleasure boat eponymously named Monkey Business. Hart was quickly forced out of the race in 1987, leaving no obvious candidate, and a national conversation ensued. People debated the proper role of the media in its intrusion into the private lives of public figures (as they saw it) and the people's right to know (as the media defined it). This unresolved theme would loom large for the next twenty years and unfold at higher and higher levels with increasing dissonance and effect at every strain.
So, for the Democrats, the choices came down to, among others, Tennessee Senator Al Gore, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, Illinois Senator Paul Simon, civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Delaware Senator Joe Biden had dropped out of the race the year before, after the press had reported allegations of his plagiarism of a British politician's speeches and his fibbing about his college and law school records.
Gore played to his strength in the New South. He was young, vigorous, and a leader of those bright, well-educated politicians who had embraced the computer revolution, sometimes called Atari Democrats. He was also known as a bit more of a hawk on foreign policy than many liberals in the Democratic Party. Gore, however, came to grief in New York State. He had attempted to follow the Carter line on abortion; he favored the Roe v. Wade ruling, committed himself to legal abortion, but opposed federal funding for abortion-on-demand. Among the party's liberal activists, this position was anathema.
Babbitt attracted a flurry of press attention when he challenged his rivals in a televised debate to stand up if they favored a tax increase. Babbitt alone stood, and his elevated stance stood him few favors. Walter Mondale's bold assertion that he would hike taxes was praised as courage in 1984, but his staggering electoral defeat may have cooled liberals' ardor to try that again, and it was a massive turnoff to independents and to those known as Reagan Democrats.
Paul Simon was the last of the colorful prairie populists. He had been an Illinois editor, a student of Abraham Lincoln, and like the Emancipator, had never been to college. That last fact hadn't stopped him from writing a dozen books. But Simon's slicked-down hairdo, bowtie, and pendulous earlobes made him seem a throwback to the 1930s—even as he appealed to some voters with a thoroughly liberal voting record and a reputation for integrity.
Jesse Jackson renewed his wild-card status in the Democratic primaries. Party leaders dreaded the possibility that an offended Jackson might run for president as an independent. Such a move would doom the Democratic nominee's prospects. On the other hand, his open embrace of Third World dictators and terrorists such as Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat caused deep distress in many quarters.
Dick Gephardt was a young member of the House of Representatives, but not very well known outside of Washington and Missouri. Proving how difficult and rare it can be for a member of the House to succeed, Gephardt won a few delegates and ran out of money fairly quickly.
Dukakis was a different story. Generous contributions from America's Greek community fueled his run for the White House. Justifiably proud of one of their own running for president, this community represented the success of America's appeal to hardworking immigrants. And the governor of a liberal state fit in perfectly fine with the Democratic Party's ideological commitments and regional preferences.
With strong sources of additional campaign funding, and no drama or awkward imagery surrounding him, Dukakis outlasted his opponents and cruised to a fairly easy nomination. For vice president, he selected an established Texan, Senator Lloyd Bentsen. The more conservative Bentsen could never have prevailed with liberal party activists in a race for the presidency (he hadn't even tried to run), but he seemed the perfect candidate to balance the national ticket both regionally and with some ideologically centrist appeal. The Boston-Austin alliance reminded party leaders of the successful 1960 ticket of Kennedy and Johnson.
Throughout the spring and most of the summer, Dukakis led George Bush by widening margins. Dukakis seized on his immigrant parents' story as an appeal to other first-generation Americans (the song played as he approached the podium at the 1988 Democratic Convention was Neil Diamond's "Coming to America"), and he even threw in a few lines of Spanish in his convention speech to strong applause. After the convention, Dukakis saw his poll numbers surge. When Bush arrived at his New Orleans nominating convention in August, he was down seventeen points in some polls.
George H. W. Bush jumped over a generation of political leaders in his selection of a vice presidential nominee. He chose a politically conservative but youthful U.S. senator from Indiana. Dan Quayle was so energeticmdash;perhaps too energetic, as the camera images showed the way he leaped onstage at his announcement for the nomination at a shirtsleeve rally in the steamy Delta city of New Orleans—that liberal journalists had a field day portraying him as an intellectual lightweight, owing to his youth and lack of national stature. The truth was, however, that Senator Quayle was forty-one years old at the time he was selected and had served in the U.S. Senate for eight years, having unseated the liberal lion Birch Bayh in his 1980 reelection effort. Prior to that, he had served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Excerpted from America THE LAST BEST HOPE by William J. Bennett Copyright © 2009 by William J. Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 7, 2014
Posted February 12, 2013
This book is so biased towards Ronald Reagan and George Bush that I am suspicious that all of the other information is slanted as well. The author writes as if the Republicans can do very little wrong and the Democrats only want to harm America for their own purpose (and I am Republican). I agree that the author does a great job of engaging the reader, but it is inappropriate as a history book because of the author's clear and present bias. I hope I get through the Bush Administration soon and maybe then the book will return to a more objective point of view.
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Posted March 31, 2012
Posted December 2, 2011
I used the first volume of this series when I was teaching US History. It was a wonderful resource for not only myself to get some great information, but it served as supplemental reading material for my students. So I was excited to be able to read this volume as well.
This book relies more heavily on first person comments and memories from the author that is because it is a time that the author lived through. Events that he experienced. What he does provide along with his comments are additional notes at the bottom of some pages that serve as additional insight into Bennett's comments.
While there is some political views seeping through the material, overall I really liked this book. It's one that I will keep in my permanent library for not only personal use, but to use in my classroom. If you are a fan of history that this book is for you!
Posted November 17, 2011
The book, America the last Best Hope by William Bennett is not just a histoy book. It is not dry and boring like many history other history books. It is interesting and filled with perfect storyies to capture to very essece of the topic he is discussing. The book is the history of America from 1988 to 2008. Unlike many books in the same genre, it focuses not only on major events, but on the politics leading up to and/or after the event. From Hurrican Katriana to 9/11, Mr. Bennett leads his readers on a jounery of some very turbulent years of the America.
I would,and all ready have, recommed this book to my friends. It could be a very useful tool for teachers in the class room as well. The book seem to have a conservative tilt ,but is still protrays boths sides of every story. Yet it pulsl no puches when the author sees the an action is rediculous or foolish. I greatly enjoyed this book and I wish the author would write a book like this one for every year. Like a year in review articule. If enough people ask maybe he will concent to do so. I received this book free from Booksneeze book review program. The opinions are my own.
Posted November 10, 2011
I recently read America, the Last Best Hope Volume III by William Bennett. This was the best modern history book I have ever read. Even though I lived through all of the events described, I have never thought of them in the way he describes them. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to have a great read on the events in the past 20 years. I am a member of Book Sneeze by Thomas Nelson and recieved a copy of this book in exchange for a review.
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