Alternate History

The George H. W. Bush Administration, 1981-89 (The Gipper Goes Down)

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Next on the agenda was choosing a new Vice President. Bush thought of selecting Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, a former White House Chief of Staff and four-star general. However, Haig was unpopular in Congress (as attested-to by his difficult confirmation as Secretary of State), and had quickly made many enemies even within the Reagan administration. His apparent power-grab ("I am in control here!") in the hours following Reagan's shooting, when Bush was away, did not earn him high accolades from Reagan insiders, nor from the Vice-President. In addition, as the man who had protected and may have negotiated a presidential pardon for Nixon during the Watergate scandal, Haig had earned the unswerving enmity of many a Democratic member of Congress. Thus, Bush opted for Senator Robert Dole of Kansas -- like him, a former military hero -- who was confirmed by both Houses of Congress in record time. Reagan was dead and the brief Reagan era a memory as President Bush and Vice President Dole got on with the job.

By the time of the 1984 Presidential election, President Bush had seen a slump in popularity. Unable to capture the hearts and minds of Americans as Reagan had, Bush dropped from a 76% approval rating just after the assassination to just 42% in January 1984. A nagging recession in 1981-83 did not help matters. However, the economy began to recover and Bush pressed on with re-election. He and Vice President Dole were re-nominated for their positions. The Democrats nominated former Vice President Walter Mondale for President, with Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro his running mate and the first woman nominated by a major party for Vice President.

The campaign was not seen as a juggernaut, and the voting public at times seemed disinterested. While military spending had increased under Bush, he was having a hard time selling economic programs and was widely seen as uncharismatic. Nevertheless, he managed to attract enough support to win re-election. Bush won 50% of the popular vote to Mondale's 46% and 290 electoral votes to Mondale's 240.

Bush's second term was at first characterized by the continuing recovery of the economy and the warming of relations with the Kremlin as a result of Gorbachev's policy og glasnost and perestroika. later on, however, the administration was engulfed in the largest political scandal since Watergate, namely, the Iran-Contra scandal. Rumors and allegations started to surface in 1985 that the government had traded arms for hostages in Iran and used the money to finance the Contras, the opposition to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The scandal rocked the Washington establishment. The man at the center of the affair, Oliver North, wrapped himself in the flag and pleaded anti-communism. The National Security Advisor, John Poindexter, and North were indicted and tried. President Bush denied all knowledge, but nobody believed him. It was clear to everybody that the President had authorized everything, including breaking U.S. law to fund the Contras. Still, a warming of relations with the Soviet Union following the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, and the prospects of a resolution to the Cold War solidified a base of support for the embattled president.

On December 19, 1987, the U.S. Congress began impeachment proceedings, charging President Bush with "gross misconduct" in the Iran-Contra scandal. Without hard proof, however, this did not constitute grounds for outright removal from office. In addition, Republican leaders and grass-roots organizations succeeded in mobilizing the Republican base and others in opposition to Bush's removal, often invoking the memory of the slain former President Reagan. In any case, there were only a few months left to Bush's administration, and Congress eventually settled for a mere "censure" of the President in exchange for a promise that he would retire and not seek re-election in 1988 (he had served almost 2 full 4-year terms already).

The President was left with little choice, and on January 16, 1988, admitted to the nation some unspecified degree of complicity in the scandal, although his intentions were good. At the same time, he announced he would not seek re-election that year. The mantle of presumed "heir apparent" immediately passed on to Vice-President Dole, who began to campaign in earnest. Meanwhile, the presumed Democratic candidate, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, surged ahead of the rather uncharismatic Dole by ten points in the polls. In November, Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, were defeated by the strong Democratic ticket of Cuomo and the young Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton (then 42 years old). They brought with them sweeping victories for the Democrats in Congress. The Republicans were tainted with the stench of corruption -- first Watergate, then Iran-Contra. It would be sixteen years before they would return to the White House, in 2004.

Key members of the George H.W. Bush administration were:

  • Secretaries of State: Al Haig (1981-82); George Schultz (1982-87), James Baker III (1987-89)
  • Secretaries of Defense: Caspar Weinberger (1981-85); Frank Carlucci (1985-87); Richard Cheney (1987-89)
  • Secrearies of the Treasury: Donald Regan (1981-85), James Baker III (1985-87), Nicholas Brady (1987-89)
  • National Security Advisor: Colin Powell (1986-89; post-Iran-Contra Scandal)
  • White House Chief of Staff: James Baker III (1981-85), Donald Regan (1985-87), Howard Baker (1987-88), Kenneth Duberstein (1988-89)
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Colin Powell (1989-93)

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