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Interview with Bush Sr. Speechwriter: From Barbara Bush to the Tea Party

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“The Bush period and the approaches we took then, in many respects, are directly related to an era of American politics that came and went.”

On May 1st, 2018, Merion West’s Erich Prince spoke with Michael Johns, a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. Mr. Johns would later become well-known in the early 2010s for his work on behalf of the Tea Party movement. In this interview, Mr. Johns discusses his impressions of the late Mrs. Bush, how politics has changed in the decades between the Bush administration and the Trump years, and the legacy of George H.W. Bush’s presidency. 

You did an interview with the BBC on April 17th, and you had some interesting remarks about the need for someone who is president to have a strong spouse. Could you talk a little bit more about your observations being in the Bush White House about the relationship between President Bush and Mrs. Bush?

Any working American in any job is certainly aware of how stressful many occupations can be, but the magnitude of pressure and responsibility that weighs on the President of the United States is literally unmatched. Some of those pressures are obvious, and some of them are not so obvious. The obvious issues include national security and issues of war and peace, ongoing threats to Americans’ security, and the economy. Then there is the less noted obligation of overseeing a vast and complex government which is often moving in multiple and contradictory directions. In and of itself, the management responsibility alone is larger than even the largest publicly-traded corporations and with a constituency that’s understandably impatient, so it’s an immensely stressful undertaking in every respect. Sure, a president might take a vacation here and there, but you’re never really on vacation. These pressures weigh on you 24/7, and they come at you much faster and harder than anyone can appreciate.

Then, of course, you have the entire political dynamic that really requires a great degree of presence nationally and in media and, inevitably, both immediate and extended family end up being a core part of that. And, so in the case of President George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush was immensely important. She was his rock. She also was immensely popular. I think when her popularity was assessed going into George W. Bush’s campaign prior to 2000 her negatives in the U.S. were under 10 percent, which is almost unprecedented for any public figure even tangentially attached to the crazy business of American politics.

And do you have any moments in the White House with Mrs. Bush that stand out in particular in your memory?

Well, certainly. If you go back and look at the first Gulf War, which was an immensely stressful period of time for the president, the support that [President Bush] garnered from [his wife] was immensely important. There was a real prolonged period of tense diplomacy and UN initiatives leading up to the January 1991 commencement of war against Saddam Hussein. In fact, President Bush, as I recall, actually developed a thyroid condition around that time, which is typically associated with stress, and he drew a lot on her strengths at that point in time. I think she was also, throughout his presidency, someone who urged him to be both bold and strong, but also considerate and even sensitive at times and in ways that were very much needed in a hyperpartisan political environment, which of course was less partisan then than it is now. She always seemed to have a balanced temperament of standing strongly for positions of principle without letting any of it get too personal. Sadly, that’s been lost in American politics. But that made her an important force, in my view.

You were a speechwriter for President Bush. One of President Nixon’s speechwriters, William Safire, prepared an alternative speech, which would have been delivered in the event of a problem with the moon landing. The White House was preparing both for the worst and for a successful landing. How common of a practice is it in speechwriting to have a speech prepared about possible negative events in case they should happen?

It’s uniformly done in the cases of presidential elections, though interestingly not in the case of Donald Trump, who did not have formal remarks developed for his unexpected victory in 2016. You typically have two folders with two separate speeches and two feeds ready to go into teleprompters. But Trump is breaking new ground in presidential communications, and mostly in bold and constructive ways, in my view. He is grossly underestimated as a communicator and as a politician. He’s a man of immense and vastly underestimated capabilities. A few of us who endorsed him from the moment he came down the escalator in June 2015 saw and knew of these capabilities. He’s precisely what our nation needs now: boldness in defense of the America First agenda, and a direct communicative connection with the people. He’s saved the Republican Party and he’s saving this nation.

You occupy an interesting role as having been a member of a Bush administration, which is now perceived as somewhat center-right, and then working on behalf of the Tea Party Movement. What sort of feedback did you receive from some of your colleagues in the Bush administration when you began your advocacy with Tea Party groups?

That’s a great question because my own political views on both policy priorities and tactics have shifted, along the lines of the way the country’s have in the sense that I am a conservative and yet pragmatic enough to see that rigid ideology does not solve every problem and can sometimes lead us down some dangerous roads. Ideology, for instance, would tell you there’s nothing wrong with a half a trillion dollar U.S. trade deficit. Really? Because behind that number lies real Americans and real lives. Sometimes it takes a hybrid approach.

During the 1990s, for instance, I strongly believed in bipartisanship and the need to try to forge bipartisan consensus and maintain cordial relations with individuals of differing viewpoints. I wish we could return to that sort of era, but we’ve moved into a much more toxic political atmosphere. So the Bush period and the approaches we took then, in many respects, are directly related to an era of American politics that came and went. On the other hand, there were [times] during [the Bush] administration when some initiatives that would have been helpful to the conservative movement were not pursued aggressively enough. I saw that too. There was the now famous compromise on the “no new taxes” pledge, which, in many respects, was President Bush’s most politically destructive step. It wasn’t really a policy misjudgment on his end because he had made what he thought was a calculated decision with Democratic leaders in Congress at the time to get some fairly deep spending cuts in exchange for some modest compromise on the tax pledge. And, of course, as you learned through the years, the taxes came quickly, and the spending cuts never came. Then Democrats blamed him for breaking the pledge as if they had no part in it. There’s a lot of lessons to absorb from that debacle.

So the Bush administration was filled with many deep experts in a broad range of functional policy areas, and he also was at one point a hugely popular president. It’s somewhat forgotten, but President Bush’s approval numbers soared above ninety percent following the liberation of Kuwait. I wonder if we ever again will see American voters support a political figure so overwhelmingly. The entire political culture has shifted into a hyper-partisan mode where no good deed goes unpunished by the other political party. What higher cause are we ultimately serving with this approach? None, in my view, and we need to take a fresh look at how we can bring some sanity back to the entire process. My day one enthusiasm for Donald Trump is rooted partly in a fairly studied recognition that the Republican Party had lost its way. In 2008 and 2012, I just don’t think the typical American looked at our national candidates and felt a connection with them. They were not talking frankly enough about the erosion of the country’s middle class—and the trade, immigration, and other policies that were at the core of this problem.

Sadly, a lot of the Republican establishment did not know these facts because they ultimately don’t spend a lot of time in that world. They didn’t drive through small towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan and see what was happening. I have. If you’re trying to understand the challenges, you need to do that. You won’t understand America when you spend your days in the swamp and your professional and social network is limited to that world, which is hugely disconnected from the realities confronting the typical American. Trump understands these people. Trump is fighting for these people. Those of us who grew up in the industrial Northeast in the late 20th century are acutely aware of what’s transpiring with what he’s properly labeled “the forgotten man and woman.”

To me, what made sense politically in, say, 1990, does not necessarily make much sense in 2018. We have a whole new set of challenges. My party wasn’t much concerned with the border back then, and we should have been. They weren’t much concerned with China back then, and we should have been. We’re now cleaning up a multi-decade policy debacle and many problems that didn’t necessarily need to be. Then the goal was to transcend partisan politics by working toward consensus. Now, I think, our goal has to be to transcend partisan politics by disregarding it entirely and going to the American people, as our Tea Party movement has done and as President Trump has done, with the message that we are not in this for partisan ends. You force us to throw a shirt on, so we’ll take the red one. But we are in this to reconnect American public policy with what the American people want and need. My view on American politics has always been to trust the people. Listen carefully, and then apply technical solutions to real life problems—and communicate with them constantly. That’s how you bridge the gap between the swamp and the nation it’s purportedly there to represent. “America First” should not be an ideology. It should be conventional wisdom, and it hasn’t been. The train jumped the rails a long time ago.

You alluded to the taxpayer issue under President Bush and the possible perception that his actions on that issue were an almost betrayal of certain conservative values. I’m wondering to what degree was the decision to appoint David Souter to the Supreme Court viewed as a similar veer away from hard-line conservative governing. I know President Eisenhower allegedly quipped that appointing Earl Warren to the Supreme Court was one of his biggest mistakes. Or was this perception on Souter only developed years later?

I think the perception when David Souter was nominated, based on a good amount of insight we had about his record on the court in New Hampshire and then on the appellate court in the First Circuit, was that he was a conservative. In fact, as I recall, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and other liberals who were really vocally opposed to him compared him to Robert Bork, who is still sort of the godfather of original intent conservatism. So there was an expectation that Souter would align with the originalists on core issues of jurisprudence, but he clearly deviated in a lot of significant ways to the disappointment of many conservatives, myself included. At the time, individuals at that time whose judgment we trusted on judicial issues saw lots of merit in him. Over time, a bench record emerged that deviated substantially from what was anticipated. It’s a curious thing, really. The product has not matched the advertisement.

For our final question, since you alluded to your work in New Jersey politics, in light of the new Democratic governor coming in, what sort of future do you see for conservatives in that state, and is it possible for conservatives to win statewide elections in states like New Jersey?

I think anyone paying attention to the state of New Jersey is acutely aware that this is a state that’s becoming increasingly inhospitable to business and to job creation. Liberals in Trenton are engaged in suicidal policies. They are leaving the state utterly uncompetitive against lower tax states with more reasonable regulatory climates. I would put New Jersey today right there with New York and California as a state that is on a very destructive path. It starts with some really fundamental facts that it’s overtaxed and over-extended in its state financial commitments. And it’s hugely over-regulated. That said, it’s one of the most beautiful and potentially successful states in the country in the sense that it’s a great place to live, it’s a beautiful state, it’s got an educated workforce, and really great people. But it’s been committing suicide now for quite a while, and we apparently have signed up for another four years of it.

Mr. Johns, thank you for your time today.

Thank you for having me.